The Making Of The Kio Kit: Interview With BRCK CEO Eric Hersman

CEO of BRCK, Eric Hersman
CEO of BRCK, Eric Hersman
CEO of BRCK, Eric Hersman

Last Tuesday saw the launch of BRCK Education, and their products, the Kio tablet and Kio Kit, which are going to instantaneously digitize a classroom, regardless of its location, and infrastructure deficiencies. If you have been following up with Kenyan tech happenings over the last few days, you probably know a good amount about both the tablet and kit, if not, read my breakdown of what they are. We got the opportunity to have a sit down with one brilliant man, Erik Hersman, CEO of BRCK, to find out the story behind these new products.

You know you have done something right when you get 28 organizations interested in your product in a span of two days after launch. This is what happened to BRCK education after the launch of their products on Tuesday. “After we launched our products on Tuesday, 28 new organizations have come to us that want to deploy the kits, not just in Kenya, but all over the region. One of our first deployment partners are the Africa Wildlife Conservation, who try to give back to those communities in conservancies by digitizing their schools, starting with Ethiopia.”

“Almost every school that we go to want it. Funny thing happened in one of the schools in Dagoretti that we were working with. We were using the kit in one classroom most of the time and so one of the other teachers came up and was like, ‘how come that other class gets it and we never get it?’ So she brought her whole class out and as we were leaving she asked us to explain to her class why they cannot get the devices!”  Says Erik with a laugh. “There is a huge demand for the device. We have 30 schools in Tanzania, a couple of schools in Uganda and half a dozen of schools here in Nairobi that we work with.”

To Erik’s team surprise, their digital classroom solution is not only being used by schools in rural or impoverished areas as it was firstly intended for. “The other deployment partner that we started with is the European Council of International Schools, who deployed the kit in their Kenyan member, International School of Kenya (ISK). They started with one Kit and our President of Education at BRCK Education, Nivi Mukhrejee went there on Monday and saw Grade one kids using the Kio, so it is cool to see something designed for kids living in Buru or somewhere in Kericho, being used by wealthy ex-pat kids from over 30 different countries”

This makes sense as this is a true innovation in the education tech space. We wanted to know the journey the Kio tablet and the Kio Kit took from inception to the product that it is now.

Demand-driven solution

“This was not our original idea, it was demand-driven. I had no knowledge in the education technology field, therefore, I buried myself in the ed-tech world.”

“BRCK was started because we pin-pointed a problem we all had which was finding reliable connectivity. We aimed to solve two things. One was power so that you are not disconnected when power goes out and two, having different ways of connecting so that you are not limited to either Ethernet or a SIM card. You can have both, so that if one fails, there is a fail-over.” He says. So that’s when they came up with the BRCK, a rugged, portable Wi-Fi router.

They have been able to ship over 3000 units in 54 countries but of course a few challenges have presented themselves, especially since BRCK is a hardware solution. “Last year was mostly about shipping the product globally and offering support for them. Hardware is hard. You find problems that unlike software, you cannot rewrite a line of code, you have to go and fix it physically.”

However they got somewhat comfortable with their product and it was now time to think about other services they could deliver with the functionalities of the BRCK. There were two main groups that were reaching out to BRCK for their solution. One was SMEs who have always been buying BRCKs and were their core customers. The other group was from education. This was not something Erik and his team were expecting. “If you talked to me two years ago about education, I’d tell you to go talk to Elimu, Eneza or eKitabu, they know about education.” He says.

Regardless of this fact, people running school digitizing programs in Malawi, Nigeria, Tanzania, India, Uganda and Latin America said that BRCK fits their needs. When asked how, they said not only is it a connectivity tool, it also has on board storage, therefore they can cache content locally.

“Since the BRCK has storage, it meant that they can store content on the device but since it is also a connectivity tool, then it can be updated over time from central servers somewhere else, therefore moving the education cloud to a local cloud.”

“This was not our original idea, it was demand-driven. I had no knowledge in the education technology field, therefore, I buried myself in the ed-tech world.”

Not just a Tablet

“I told them that there is no way we are building a tablet. It is not interesting it is just a commodity, not a solution”

There are various education tablets out there from different manufacturers. It is not a new concept. When Erik’s team came up with the idea of making a tablet, he immediately refused. “I told them that there is no way we are building a tablet. It is not interesting as it is just a commodity, not a solution. I had no knowledge about the ed-tech world but I knew that a solution can be arrived upon. Being an outsider in this field was an advantage. I was objective. It was not a device or connectivity or content problem. Solutions existed for all, individually. We needed to come up with a holistic solution”

Armed with this approach, they set out to provide such solution. When it came to the education tablet, they wanted one that was not more than $50, which are in plenty, but the quality is mostly sub-standard. They decided to build their own. Therefore, they approached Intel and were connected to a group of talented people and they started designing the tablet from scratch. This process required a lot of user experience testing so they went straight to their target audience, the children.

“When we took the first tablet to schools, we noticed one problem. When the kids were trying to plug the tablet in for charging, a lot of breakage at the point of charging was experienced. The tablets were not charging properly. We now had to think  about of power differently. That’s when we thought about wireless charging and thought, why can’t we take luxury wireless charging and implement it in such a way that a kid wouldn’t have to worry about it. With a kit, the kid would simply have to drop it in and walk away, leaving it to charge. Furthermore, we do not need teachers to be ICT champions to control any kind of tech in the classroom, they shouldn’t be thinking about tech therefore whatever we built had to be simple to use.”

That is how the Kio Kit came to be. It wasn’t built with an end product in sight, well planned out. It was a series of  mini-steps that got the BRCK team to the kit. Firstly, the BRCK was working with tablets, therefore connectivity and storage was not an issue. Secondly, a different way of powering the devices had to be thought through, hence the use of wireless charging. Proper engineering had to be taken into account so that the tablets would still charge regardless of how the kid drops the tablet in. Thirdly, the product had to be packaged in such a way that a teacher doesn’t have to think too much about how it is going to work. Therefore, the Kio Kit started to make sense.

“A lot of user experience testing was done at the UX lab at iHub. Mark Kamau was really brilliant when it came to user experience. He went to the schools and tested out the kit. Teachers would tell him things that they wouldn’t necessarily say to others. After their input, we finally had a product to bring to the market. The Kio Kit we launched is actually version 4. It took us nine months to move the products from inception to market ready ed-tech solutions.”

Another crucial team member during the product design and manufacturing of the products was their CTO, Reg Orton. “He spent a large amount of time working on medical device manufacturing, a field where precision matters. He understands everything from Research and Development and prototyping to manufacturing.”

Finding talent for the project has not always been easy. According to Erik, most of the local software and electrical engineering graduates have little practical knowledge on working on little mobile phone-sized motherboards, therefore they spend a lot of time training them. However he was quick to say that over time, the talent is getting better.

 Manufacturing in Kenya

” Manufacturing using EPZ’s kills you in Kenya, because you can only sell 20% of your product here, but we want to sell locally.”

When the President Uhuru Kenyatta toured the iHub earlier this year, he took notice of one thing about the BRCK that Erik told him, that is, that it is designed in Kenya but made in the USA. Erik explained why. “I told him that the 40 year-old legacy laws are stopping us from creating a consumer electronic manufacturing base here. Kenya has a huge opportunity to be the base of consumer electronic manufacturing for the region but it is hindered by a law that adds 20 – 30% duty for importing components that you cannot make here.”  This interaction bore fruit as announced in the 2015/2016 budget later on. The budget had white listed some components that they had suggested that go in the BRCK, mobile phones and tablets. “Everyone in this ecosystem, from mobile device manufacturers to consumer electronic makers can now import zero-rated components and start manufacturing locally.”

Another challenge that they face when it comes to manufacturing the Kios is that according to Erik, The tax regime that exists for manufacturing locally require one to do so in special manufacturing zones like the Export and Processing Zone, something that Erik says beats the whole point. “Manufacturing using EPZ’s kills you in Kenya, because you can only sell 20% of your product here, but we want to sell locally. Things like these tend to hinder local manufacturing of products, but being able to import zero rated components will allow us to sell locally because the idea isn’t to make it and export it, rather it is to use it locally.”

BRCK education will start assembling the Kio tablets locally in the next 3-6 months. The Kio Kit is designed, engineered and manufactured locally, with the exception of importing wireless charging components.

Big stuff coming soon

“It is made to be beaten up a bit. You can drop it in the ocean and it will still keep working!”

BRCK Education will not stop here. Erik could not disclose in detail on the company’s future plans, but he promised that  really big things are coming out before the end of the year. If this past launch of products is anything to go by, then I cannot wait to see what else they have in store for us. The BRCK itself will also see major improvement soon. “By the end of this year or beginning of the next, there will be an enterprise version of the BRCK. It will be larger, have more computing power and battery and will be 100% waterproof, among other things. It is made to be beaten up a bit. You can drop it in the ocean and it will still keep working!” He says enthusiastically.

The future is definitely bright  for both BRCK and the education sector, with more and more solutions from the private sector who are also taking the responsibility of digitizing classrooms. I personally will be keen on seeing what BRCK is going to bring to the table because they definitely find unconventional solutions by pushing the boundaries and coming out with really innovative and truly holistic solutions.