I first heard about the Way-C, the African-designed tablet made especially for the African market, on NPR via The World back at the end of January. I wanted to write about it at the time but I held off because I thought it there would be a big to-do about the project and didn’t want to be another voice in the echo chamber.
Three weeks later, and I’ve yet to see any meaningful write-ups about this device. That’s a shame because I think this is big news.
The Way-C from VMK is a tablet designed by Congolese developer Vérone Mankou. Why is the Way-C special? The Way-C is a inexpensive ($300USD), sturdy device geared specifically for the African market. As Mankou says, “I always believed we African cannot remain consumers for ever. We need to become producers. This is the vision that supported me since the beginning. We African should believe more in our potential,” and the Way-C came about while “looking for solutions to allow many people access the internet.” To realize his dream of turning Africans from consumers to producers, VMK is holding a quarterly contests for 2012 where African developers can win prizes for the top apps that are made for Africans. These prize-winning apps will undoubtedly get top-billing on VMK’s own app store, VMK App Market “which has a selection of the best Android Market applications and highlights apps developed for the African market.”
This is a brilliant move, and I’m surprised there’s not more excitement from the tech world at large. While the Way-C’s hardware is admittedly ’whelming,’ as far as I can tell it is a solid device and will do well by consumers who want a reliable connection to the Internet. But beyond building a device as a portal to the web, I admire Mankou for having the vision to recognize that a device merely connecting people to the Internet is not enough. His vision is bigger than just bringing an infrastructure that has, largely, been produced by the rest of the world into his continent. He says “We need to become producers” and not only does Mankou produce, he provides a tool for other Africans to use for production!
Mankou talks a lot about keeping the Way-C African, however, there are some concerns that the Way-C is not as Africa-friendly as first reported: the device is currently made in China. Mankou says he would prefer to bring production of the Way-C to Africa and says ”we seek funding to create an assembly line,” as “[t]his will allow us to reduce our transportation costs from Asia, because the individual ingredients are much less bulky.” It would be great for the device to be made locally, I still don’t see the production of the device being the important part of the Way-C. The iPhone is made in China, yet there is no shortage of praise touting the device as another example of American innovation.
Discussion about the future of the device’s production at this point are a bit premature since the sales figures are nonexistent. It seems that at least one thousand units were pre-ordered but I could not verify those numbers. Additionally, the Way-C was set for a limited release in Belgium and France on the 15th, but I have not seen if it has been released on schedule in Europe or not.
The Way-C’s future is murky, at least for the moment. Until people start using the device it’s difficult to determine whether or not it will have much of an impact for Africans who want to access the Internet. Hopefully, the cheap price-point and attention to specialized apps will make the Way-C a success. A connected Africa is not just a boon to Africa, it’s a boon to the world.