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Could this little black box beat Facebook in race to connect Africa?

Story highlights

  • Kenyan start-up BRCK has raised $3 million for an invention to boost internet access in Africa
  • The tech company founded BRCK Education to give digital tools to schools in remote areas

(CNN)Kenyan start-up BRCK has secured $3 million in funding for an invention that could change internet connectivity across Africa.

Their product, called "the BRCK", is a rugged modem designed for harsh environments with limited connection and power.
    What makes it noteworthy is that it can hop between different types of connections such as Ethernet, Wi-Fi and 3G or 4G.
    It also comes with eight hours of battery, crucial during Africa's frequent power blackouts.
    BRCK CEO Erik Hersman says the device has the potential to help millions facing the daily frustrations of power cuts and patchy internet.
    "Most of the organizations working to increase access to the internet in Africa are dealing with it at the infrastructure level, with satellites or undersea cable, with mobile phone towers -- and even balloons and drones," Hersman told CNN.
    He added: "BRCK deals with the last meter of internet connectivity in the bus stops and kiosks, homes and schools of Africa."
    The small device taps into a wider scramble to connect Africa, with initiatives from tech giants like Google's Project Loon and Facebook's Free Basics both aiming to boost internet access for millions. Currently, Free Basics only allows subscribers to access a handful of websites for free.
    According to Hersman, the BRCK will offer people an alternative, and less limited, source of connection.
    "This is a direct answer to the 'walled-garden' internet access that Facebook is providing," he said.

    African technology going global

    BRCK is proving that African-led solutions can lead the way for tech innovation not just locally, but globally too -- and it seems investors agree.
    Since 2013, BRCK has sold over 2,500 devices in 54 countries -- most notably in India, where Facebook has faced some backlash over its free internet initiative.
    With $3 million in its pocket from supporters including former AOL executives Jean and Steve Case and the TED organization, BRCK looks set for continued growth in 2016.
    "A lot of this funding is earmarked to grow our footprint, distribution and team around BRCK Education across the continent and globally," said Hersman.

    Powering a digital revolution in schools

    There are 410 million school children in Africa, according to the African Development Bank. The vast majority have little access to the internet.
    Last year, BRCK rolled out BRCK Education, an initiative built to help solve the problem of providing remote schools with digital material.
    "There are certain industries that badly needed what we had built, such as education institutions," said Hersman.
    BRCK's "Kio Kit" includes 40 customized drop and water-resistant tablets, 40 earphones, and a plug to provide wireless charging, all within a rugged case.
    "It allows any teacher to create a digital classroom in just a few minutes," explained Hersman.
    On the outskirts of Nairobi is Lighthouse Grace Academy, the first school to test out BRCK's Kio Kit, using it in four different classes.
    Schoolmaster Pastor George Njenga says the invention has so far been very successful.
    "This technology is a great help not only for the teachers but also the students, who are really learning a lot. In fact, sometimes I think they learn more with this kit than with the teacher," he said.
    "I would recommend any school, anywhere in the world, to use it," added the schoolmaster.