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Mark Kamau: A Digital Age Mission

May 24, 2018

Earlier this year we had the privilege of hearing Kenyan Mark Kamau speak at Cape Town’s Design Indaba conference. Mark’s belief in human-centered design as a powerful tool for social and economic change, together with his passion and determination to see his vision come to fruition, made for a palpable and hugely inspiring talk.

How Mark got into the world of technology is a story in its own right. He grew up in Mathare in Kenya and as a boy, he saw football as a way to better himself. However, when he realized that the football federation was broke and that his mother couldn’t afford to send him to university, he enrolled to do Nairobits, a free digital design course run by the Dutch organization, Butterfly Works. Mark was on the program for two years and in that time learned how to build websites and became interested in urban planning and design. When Mark and a friend won a bid to design a website for the Dutch Embassy, it was a watershed moment and the launchpad for a career that saw him move to the Netherlands and Germany a few years later, where he worked in design in the tech sector. But his yearning to apply what he had learned back home remained and so a few years later he returned home and set up Africa’s first UX lab for start-ups, as part of iHub, a non-profit established by Erik Hersman and Juliana Rotich of Ushahidi.

From there he got the idea for BRCK, an innovative technology startup where Mark works as a User Experience Design Director. His focus is a single statistic: that more than 3 billion people globally are currently offline, the majority of whom are women. This informs everything that Mark and his team strive to do at BRCK and has led to the development of a range of products that they believe will change all that, one BRCK at a time.

‘We’re on a mission to bring WiFi access to those people that can’t afford it,’ says Mark, whose first product was the SupaBRCK, a back-up system that allows users to access the internet during power cuts. ‘It works in much the same way as you might have a generator for electricity. A sim card lasts for up to 8 hours and it broadcasts WiFi to about 30 of people.’ Spurred on by the success of BRCK, Mark realized it could be a useful tool for education too and so, the Kio-Kit was born. Designed to bring education to those people in remote areas who do not have electricity or a decent WiFi connection, the wonder of the Kio-Kit is that it instantly turns a rural classroom into a digital one. Each kit comes with 40 tablets and headphones that are designed with young learners in mind, so the ‘on’ button is bright orange and the headphones are yellow as obvious starting points. For Mark and his team, it’s been an evolving journey. ‘We have been amazed at how quickly young learners grasp the workings of the tablets while in some instances the teachers really struggled with the technology,’ he explains. ‘This in turn, lead to the realization that we needed to train the teachers and make them experts first, before introducing it into the classroom.’

Cleverly, the devices are content agnostic, making them so versatile they are currently being used in schools in from Kenya and Rwanda to as far afield as Mexico and the Solomon Islands. Proving Mark’s assertion that human-centered design can transcend not just social and economic boundaries but geographical borders too. Watch Mark’s inspiring talk here

If you would like to include a visit to BRCK as part of your next African itinerary, please email us at welcom@roarafrica.com 

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