By Paul Ndiho
April 17, 2012
In an age of technological marvels, it may not be a surprise that a young Congolese inventor is behind Africa’s first homegrown tablet computer that is selling for 300 dollars. It’s the first of its kind, invented in Africa by 26 years old student, Verone Mankou; it’s called the Way-C, meaning ‘starlight’ in a dialect of Northern Congo.
It’s part the technological revolution that is sweeping across the continent – where almost every free hand; and nearly every face pinched in concentration, focused on a hand held device like a tablet computer, ipad’s or smartphone.
In other parts of the world the Apple iPad is often the innovation of choice, but in Africa, it’s an innovation of necessity – And in Brazzaville, Congo, it’s the Way-C, Africa’s very own tablet computer is designed to bring cheap technology and internet connectivity to the masses.
“This is primarily a Congolese product. I had to buy it because it was made by a Congolese, and after I wanted to see and I had some doubt like everyone thought, if this product would last? But I was proved wrong and I am pleased I bought it.”
The Way-C’s designer and engineer, Verona Mankou, says his goal was to create affordable computers and to bring internet access to millions of Africans. The device is designed in Congo, the Way-C is assembled in China, to keep the price low and because the Central African Nation lacks facilities to manufacture in the tablet.
“At the beginning, the idea was to come up with a computer tablet that wasn’t expensive, to allow as many people to have access to internet. Over the years, the computer has evolved and is no longer just accessible in the office. So our project also changed in 2007, and we moved towards making a computer tablet. After years of research and technology, as well as financing for the project, we managed to finish the product in 2011, we then presented it, and it has been on the market since January 2012.”
The Way-C was created by Mankou’s company, VMK and went on sale for the first time this year in Congo at 300 US dollars. VMK forecasts its domestic sales to reach over 100 thousand tablets in one year within one year, before it launches to neighboring countries in West Africa.
It is a little smaller than Apple’s iPad, with a 7-inch screen and weighing in at 380 grams. It runs on an Android operating system, with 4GB internal memory and 512MB of RAM compared to iPad’s 1GB but Mankou says its technical features put it on the same page as other tablets in the market.
“It’s also an electronic book because with it has a memory of 4 gigabytes, which for some may appear too little, but it can contain up to 3000 ebooks. Basically it is an ideal companion that you can use anywhere. You can surf the internet and be in touch with relatives via applications like facebook, share information on application as twitter, basically it is a computer, which can be used on the move.”
The Way-C is retailed in Congo by Indian based mobile phone company Bharti Airtel and has sold over 2000 units in Brazzaville alone with more orders streaming in.
“From the customers’ experience, meaning those who have bought the product and those who have used it, they have seen its efficiency, speed and capacity, and the customers have also quickly realized that the product is on par with those on the international market, which is why we have seen the product quickly selling off the shelves,”
Africa is the fastest growing mobile market in the world and will be home to 738 million handsets by the end of this year, according to a survey by GSMA, which represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide. The survey says the rise of smartphones has also given millions of African internet access for the first time.
Mankou says that with a product like the Way-C the opportunities to get people connected are high, because it is a reliable and reasonably priced device.
“For many people, it was a surprise because they did not expect to see a product with such quality and reliability. I personally think that the product is reliable because if the product was not reliable, we would not put have put it on the market if it was not reliable, a great partner like Airtel would not have wanted to attach its name on something that is not legit”.
Technology experts are dubbing Verona Mankou as the next “Steve Jobs of Africa” and that he’s among a growing class of technology developers. The popularity of his locally engineered product is even more enticing for the tech-savvy youth than internationally known brands as Africa increasingly relies on homegrown innovations.
“Even iPad and the other products were made with good quality, but they were not made in seconds. Those behind the Congolese computer tablet started it bit by bit, so yes I still think that it’s a solid product. Over time, there will be more expertise and progress, and the product will have better quality,”
At 26 year old, Verona Mankou, is wasting little time creating his next product. His company already is working on a Congolese smartphone that he expects will launch later this year.
Electronic giants like Samsung are already aggressively courting African consumers with “Built for Africa” smartphones that feature energy-saving electrical appliances purpose built to withstand high temperatures and erratic power supply.