A Tablet for Africa?

Guest post by Jay Cousins:

For many of you reading this, the title of this article might lead you to a vision of one laptop per child – or some other Silicon Valley vision of progress for Africa.

The technology I wish to discuss is slower and simpler. Full disclosure: it’s my invention.

The Betabook is a portable whiteboard, which can be used with a smartphone for archiving, content creation, and social media sharing.

During my time in Egypt working with the icehubs network, I tested the initial prototypes. Uses in this context included:

  • Translation – through drawings (and the written text of others) I’ve been able to communicate with Deaf Egyptians in Aswan and others who cannot speak English.
  • Improved communication – visual aids, allow for clearer communication of objectives or ideas
Part’s list for Air Quality Kit – Preparing for a Hackidemia workshop in Alexandria – see previous post for outcomes.
  • Note taking during field work, and archiving using my smartphone
  • Annotation of photos as a form of resource documentation.
A visual model of the problems of land inheritance in Egypt, along with potential solution.
  • Creating an illustrated children’s story with my wife (story by me, illustrations by Zeinab)
I found the Betabook to be an invaluable tool, and something I could share and use freely with my peers. Asking collaborators to “draw it for me” allowed for clearer communication, and easy creation of new ideas.

Three deaf brothers I used it with in Aswan liked it so much we decided to do a spontaneous workshop to show them how to make their own.

Early prototype showing difference between readily available plastic and custom created.

We used locally sourced plastic sheet – not as good as our custom material but enough for their needs.

I hope that the project can also serve as inspiration, demonstrating that Technology need not always be digital. This project started in a bedroom with a pair of scissors, and developed in the open.

An early prototype built from an old notebook, some plastic sheet and some tape using a pair of scissors.

Since the end of my contract we have funded the product on Kickstarter. I’m pleased to report it’s been enthusiastically received by the Egyptian Market.

We recognise the current price of the Betabook makes it less accessible to all tiers of the African market. To address potential demand we are making our material available for people to produce their own. We are also encouraging group buying to reduce postage costs.

For Hubs which already use new process models such as:

  • Graphic Facilitation
  • Open Space
  • Hackathons
  • Service Design Workshops
  • Business Canvas Workshops

The Betabook offers the opportunity to reduce long term material costs and generate additional income streams.

There are lots of discussions about localised production within various hubs and organisations. We can see the potential of local micro-businesses to profit from producing their own versions of the Betabook. We’re interested to connect with communities who upcycle local waste. Collaboration with local artisans could also lead to unique product offerings.

While its too early for us to get this network of producers up and running at this point, we are eager to gage the demand for this model. Please feel free to get in touch if you’d like to be one of the first to know when we are ready to take this conversation further.

Win a Copy of William Kamkwamba’s Book!

If you’ve been reading AfriGadget for a while, you know of a name that keeps popping up over and over – William Kamkwamba. He was first written about by another blogger friend Mike McKay and then subsequently covered here on AfriGadget a good 3 years ago. His windmills and the story behind it are an inspiration for many. There is now a book, a documentary and a foundation all set up around the inspired story of windmills from Malawi.

William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer at a book signing

Win a copy of “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind”

As luck would have it, I have 2 extra copies of William’s new book. I’d like to share that with you, the readers of the blog. To do that, I want to challenge you to send in an AfriGadget-like story, picture or video. Just write it and attach the pictures in an email to main@afrigadget.com. I’ll review them and pick the ones that I think best fits the blog. It’ll be posted here with attribution to you.

We’ve got two weeks until Oct 31, so I’ll give one book away each week. Let’s see what you’ve got! And, yes, I’ll mail the book anywhere in the world.

Note: the best AfriGadget stories come with pictures, so make sure you send those in as well.

William in the news

He’s been doing his book tour in the US this month, hitting some pretty big shows, including ABCs Good Morning America and the Daily Show with John Stewart (videos below).

William Kamkwamba on Good Morning America
William Kamkwamba on Good Morning America

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
William Kamkwamba
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Ron Paul Interview

Bamako’s Digital Multimedia Bookshop

In downtown Bamako, Mali an entrepreneurial bookshop owner, Mamadou Coulibaly, has been attracting an ever-increasing number of clients and curious onlookers since the owner set up an odd-looking computer. “The Source” is a handmade computer box that acts as an offline distributor of online multimedia material. Anyone can step up to the kiosk and pick up anything from Wikipedia pages to local music. Their most popular requests: the Koran and Malian music.

[video link]

“Our goal is to give people a wider access to educational and cultural material, so this can help to trigger their desire to learn and expand their knowledge.”

This type of innovation really brings home the slow, or expensive, capacity of local internet connections. Bypassing internet cafes (slow) for local, or more static content, can be done through local-only internet hosting too. However, what’s ingenious here is the idea that most people in Bamako don’t need the internet connection at all. That by acting as a simple distribution node for dynamic information and media (the web) they are successfully filling the needs of the local population.

It’s always good to see local-level entrepreneurs benefiting from taking outside ideas and making them work for their needs in Africa. Many times a completely new solution isn’t needed, just a culturally relevant one.

[More on “The Source“]

A MAKE Philosphy for Africa

Make MagazineMAKE magazine is the epitome of Western gadget and technological home-made ingenuity. MAKE magazine is very much the American version of AfriGadget. I love the magazine, it’s one of two magazines that I subscribe to.

What’s different about African mechanics and gadgetery is that it’s generally made with much fewer, and more basic, materials. Where you might find a story on how to make high-tech robots at home in MAKE, it’s counterpart in Africa might be how to create a bicycle out of wood. No less ingenuity needed, but far more useful for an African’s everyday life.

A post by Emeka Okafor of Timbuktu Chronicles was the catalyst for this post (and from which I stole the title). He makes the point that Africans are already doing what their counterparts in the West have a sudden new found interest in. They might be doing it in a rather rough way, but with some nurturing it could create a “climate of interest” and growth in African industrialization.

A MAKE for Africa will be a non-limited set of values and practical ideas that evolve, germinate, propagate and replicate with informed nudges…

So, there is a “MAKE philosophy” already present in Africa, one that continues to grow and evolve in sophistication. What we need to do is showcase that ingenuity. Doubtless, many Americans and Europeans will be amazed at some of the simple answers to everyday problems coming out of Africa.