East Africa

Regulations need relaxing if African hardware is to become reality

Kenya’s BRCK providing African solution to rural connectivity issuesSpeaking recently Erik Hersman of iHub, Ushahidi and now BRCK renown bemoaned the fact that legacy tax laws made it impossible for his company to assemble its modem-cum-router in Kenya – Tom Jackson.

Hersman said prohibitive duties meant it was currently impossible for the BRCK – a router designed for harsh environments with limited connectivity and power – to be assembled locally, with even the cost of doing the prototyping in Kenya prohibited.

BRCK has found a solution. The device is designed and engineered in Nairobi, but is then shipped to the United States for assembly. After this, the device can then be shipped back to Kenya duty free. A roundabout process, but one that saves the company money in the long run, if not time and effort.

As Hersman notes, the same regulations that are holding back the BRCK from being built locally are also holding back the African assembly of other hardware, such as tablets, smartphones and PCs. A whole industry – and the job creation that would come with it – is being stonewalled by legacy laws.

The Appsafrica Innovation Awards celebrate innovation and entrepreneurship making an impact in Africa.This is doubly disappointing given that there are some signs that an African hardware industry is beginning to grow teeth, most notably in the form of wearables. South African company Geco travelled to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas in January to show off its Geco Cam. The company describes the camera as one of the lightest in the world, meaning it can easily be mounted on glasses. Consumer uptake has been positive, with almost 300 pre-orders shipped at the cost of US$175 per device.

“The Geco is a unique product and the first of its kind. It mounts onto any pair of glasses, prescription or sunglasses, weighing only 20g and recording in full HD. It operates through the use of a single, tactile button making it very user friendly while it’s size and weight make it very versatile,” co-founder Prinesh Naidoo told AppsAfrica.

Congolese firm VMK has already established a reputation for flouting the usual way of doing things, not only by selling African smartphones but also by starting work on an Africa-based assembly plant. The company is also branching into wearables, partnering with Omate to assemble a smartwatch in Africa as opposed to China.

CEO Verone Mankou, like Naidoo, has spotted a market for hardware – especially wearables – in Africa, with the help of some lower pricing.

“When you see African people in the middle class, you will see that on every hand they have watches. The challenge is to change that watch into a smart one. It is just question of time, I’m sure it will be done,” he told AppsAfrica.

And he feels that Africa-made brands could also have an edge of international ones in the long run.

“I think the “made in Africa” can survive in front of “made outside Africa”. The problem is not about quality, it is not about cost. The real problem is Africans don’t yet trust in African branding, but things are changing. I’m optimistic about the future.

Being able to assemble in Africa would be a significant development for Geco.

“The big obstacle currently is about the distance to the supplier in Asia,” said Naidoo.  “And the second is the human resources. Wearables are a new domain, so need new talent, but it’s very difficult to find them.”

The other major obstacle is regulations, particularly on tax on local assembly and manufacture. But there is some hope, and from Hersman’s point of view he’ll be pleased to know it comes from Kenya. Makerspace Gearbox launches in Nairobi next month, with director Dr Kamau Gachigi saying his aim is to play a role in the reinvention of the country’s manufacturing industry, particularly when it comes to computers.

Gearbox’s space is aimed at offering members the chance to develop and put into practice innovative ideas in hardware, but Gachigi also wants to create a community of people that can build things on a local scale and help cut down on the costs of shipping components to and from Asia.

To get this off the ground, however, Gachigi has had to go right to the top. And he says Kenyan government figures are hearing his argument when it comes to relaxing regulation on local assembly and prototyping. He says Gearbox is learning how to classify certain objects and work through the system in order to get the best results, and feels help will soon be at hand in terms of more relaxed duties and waivers on certain components. Not just in Kenya, but across Africa, this would be a vital step in establishing a hardware industry beyond the early efforts of Geco and VMK.

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