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Verone Mankou of VMK with Senam Beheton of EtriLabs, who organized Verone's US trip.

Verone Mankou of VMK with Senam Beheton of EtriLabs, who organized Verone’s US trip.

We switched things up a little for our May 21 Technology Salon and had an evening event with Verone Mankou, the head of VMK, a company in Congo Brazzaville that designs and produces the Way-C Tablet and the Elikia smart phone. The event was graciously hosted by ThoughtWorks, and Verone’s US trip was organized by Senam Beheton of EtriLabs.

Verone told his story of starting the first African company to make mobile devices. In 2006, he said, the cheapest computer in Congo cost $1000 USD, and the cheapest Internet package was priced around $1000 per month. Verone worked in the tech industry and wondered why there was no computer or Internet that could be reasonably accessed by people in Congo. Everyone laughed and said he was young, fresh out of school, and that within 2 years he would understand the business and stop dreaming.

Verone persisted with his idea that computers and the Internet were not just for people in offices with suits. Everyone wanted to access Internet, he believed, but they just didn’t have the money. So in 2006, he started working on ideas for a laptop. After 6 months he concluded that it was impossible. To create a laptop you need a lot of money for research and development, and, unfortunately, his bank account only contained about $100 USD. He had no contacts with suppliers. Verone had a big dream but problems executing it, so he put the laptop project on hold.

In June 2007, a friend told him to hurry up and turn on the news. Steve Jobs was presenting the iPhone. “This is what I want to do,” Verone thought. “Make a big iPhone.” He felt keyboards were a deterrent for most people who were new to a computer, and that “a big iPhone” would be a solution. He started working on the idea of a tablet. It was difficult to find any suppliers on the African continent – no CPU factory, no battery factory. He could not find hardware engineers because in Congo there is no engineering high school. He realized he needed to go outside, to Asia. He made a first trip to China in 2007 and learned many things. By 2009 he had a plan, an Android system, and a finished project.

The next problem, however, was that he had no money for mass production. “In Congo we don’t have venture capitalists. Also as a youth, you cannot get any money. You will have a bad experience if you go to the bank to ask. People will tell you to start a hotel and not to waste your money on something different.” Verone did not go quiet when he could not find capital, however. He kept looking.

Meanwhile, Steve Jobs presented a new device: a big iPhone – otherwise known as the iPad. Verone was disappointed that Jobs had moved more quickly than he could with his tablet launch. On the other hand, everyone suddenly understood Verone’s project.

His miracle came a few months later when a minister from Congo was on a plane from Brazzaville to Singapore and came across a magazine article talking about a boy in Congo making a tablet. The minister could not believe someone in his country was doing this and he did not know about it. He contacted Verone and asked how he could help. Verone asked for $200k USD and gave the minister a prototype. Within 2 hours, the minister secured the funding and Verone was able to begin manufacturing.

He had enough funds to do a mass prototype of 1000 tablets and imagined that he could sell them in 3 months if they were marketed well. There was a buzz around the tablets, however, and they sold out in 1 week and he increased production to 10,000. Compared to the cost of an iPad in Congo (around $1500), Verone’s tablet was going for $200-300. He set his sights on making a good quality, low-cost smart phone.

Good quality is key for Verone. “Why do Samsung and Nokia come to Africa and think Africans need cheap, low quality devices?” As an African, Verone felt uniquely placed to create something for the continent – something cheap but good quality. He did this by eliminating unnecessary features and keeping only the necessary elements.

Next he needed to ensure that there was good content and an opportunity for monetization. Africans needed applications and content for their own purposes and context, he felt. Not maps of pharmacies in New York City. However most Africans do not have credit cards, so another way to pay for content and applications was needed. VMK created a marketplace for Africans that used scratch cards for payment, since everyone understands how scratch cards work.

VMK launched their smart phone in December of last year and  plans to sell 50K units in Congo Brazzaville. The company is also working on a cheaper phone with lower capacity that should run about $50 USD. In addition, they are working on identifying content partners and launching an “updateable school book” that would be accessible also at around $50 USD, so that students and teachers are not using outdated text books, which stunt the development of African children’s minds.  Verone’s vision is to give people access to good quality technology at a good price.

How will VMK compete with Chinese products as prices continue to go down over the next 10 years? “We will learn fast,” Verone says. “We will not sit while others advance.” He believes that expanding to African countries and developing the industry there will be good for the continent, good for developers and good for business. It’s not yet possible to do mass production in Africa because of poor education and lack of / high cost of Internet. People still cannot easily access relevant and updated information. But Internet is getting cheaper, access is improving and things are changing. People are starting to understand the importance of education. VMK currently has teams working in China and India, but they hope to move these functions to Africa as soon as possible. VMK plans to train staff up, offer internships and to get African youth skilled up in order to do this work.

The important thing is not to sit still, Verone says. “We can’t just keep waiting for things to change. We need to change them ourselves.”

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There are a lot of great ideas floating around about how Information and Communications Technology (ICTs) and technology in general can help to rebuild Haiti.  I hope these ideas keep coming.  I would love to see international development organizations, aid agencies and non-profits in general open up more to ideas on how technology can improve the lives of the people they are trying to support as well as facilitate coordination and program implementation.

But I also hope that the technology folks who haven’t worked in a crisis context such as that in Haiti will lend an ear to those who have experience working in past disasters and on-going development programs, human rights work, volunteer initiatives and advocacy. Those experiences shouldn’t be tossed out as old-school.  Good programs and experiences exist that can be examined, processed and built on.

I work globally, with one foot in community development and the other in ICTs, and I notice a gap between these 2 sectors, though they could really learn a lot from each other and work nicely together.

Cool technology ideas, just like cool program ideas can flop on the ground if the local culture and context are not taken into consideration, users were not involved or consulted during design and testing, the supposed ‘problem’ really wasn’t a problem at all, the proposed idea is not sustainable, a better/preferred local solution already exists, etc., etc.

Sometimes when I hear enthusiastic people sharing ideas for new applications, innovations or program ideas that they want to implement in ‘developing’ countries, I find myself thinking:  “Wow.  They have no idea what it’s like on the ground.”  I don’t want to shoot down someone’s excitement.  But I do wish that those who are not intimately familiar with their end users would slow down, think for a minute, and realize that local context is king. I wish they would remember that ultimately this is not about them and their ideas for other people. I wish they would stop being mad that abc organization won’t take that shipment of xyz technology that they want to send over, or that no one wants to implement such and such program that was so successful in such and such place.  Solutions looking for problems are not the best way to go about things, even when you have the very best of intentions.

However, non-profit organizations (large and small)  can be totally resistant to trying new tools, technologies and programs that could make a huge difference in their effectiveness, impact and quality of programming. They can be bureaucratic and slow to put new ideas to work.  They can be risk averse, afraid of failure, and resistant to innovation and new ideas.  The seemingly limitless relationships that need to be negotiated around can really slow things down.

Sometimes I see non-profits doing things they way they’ve always been done and I find myself thinking “Wow.  I wish they’d be open to trying ________.” I wish organizations would be more willing to test out new technologies and new ideas that don’t come from within their sector. I wish it were easier to make change happen.

When it comes to the Haiti earthquake response, the technology and non-profit sectors are 2 of the key players.  I’m worried that the outpouring of interest in helping will lead to a lot of wheel re-inventing.  I’m worried about local relevance and executability (if that’s even a word) of some of the ideas I am seeing.  I have concerns about the amount of projects being conceived and designed from afar.  I also see that there are new program and technology ideas out there that have the potential to make people’s lives easier if they were well integrated into the local reality, yet there are many factors that prohibit and inhibit organizations from exploring them or using them.

The technology and non-profit sectors benefit quite a lot from each other when they work together and understand each other.  It would be great to see a bigger effort to bridge the gap between these sectors.  Regardless of whether people believe NGOs and/or private enterprises and/or technologists or the Haitian government or the UN are good or bad, there are a lot of experiences that can be learned from and/or improved on from all sides.

The links below might be helpful for thinking about designing technology, ICT and programs in ‘developing’ country contexts and to help avoid known pitfalls and overcome obstacles. They can help reduce the amount of time and other resources wasted on projects that are not sustainable or impactful, or at worst are actually harmful in the short or long term to the very people that we all want to support and help.  There are certainly many more resources out there… please add ones that you find helpful in the comments section.

ICT Works and The 4 C’s of ICT Deployment

Mobiles for Development Guide by Hannah Beardon

IDEO Human Centered Design Toolkit

Changemakers and Kiwanja collaboration: SMS How To Guide

Mobile Active‘s case studies

ML4D:  Mobile learning for development’s design narratives

Ushahidi Blog: February Archives have a lot of information on the Haiti response

iRevolution: thought provoking posts on technology and crisis situations

Educational Technology Debate:  Sustaining, rather than sustainable ICT4E and Designing and sustaining a sustainable ICT4E initiative

Posts on Wait… What? that might be useful:

7 (or more) questions to ask before adding ICTs

Finding some ICT answers in Benin

Meeting in the Middle: A good local process

It’s all part of the ICT jigsaw

I and C and then T

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