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African Entrepreneurship in Mobile Hardware Technology

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At the recent Technology Salon on African-Led Mobile Innovation in Congo Brazzaville, we welcomed 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.

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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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