SA tablet for rural areas, education

Two South African entrepreneurs have developed a tablet aimed at rural markets in Africa. The device can be charged by the sun in places where a reliable supply of electricity is hard to come by. By Regardt van der Berg.

Thulisile Volwana and Sabelo Sibanda

Thulisile Volwana and Sabelo Sibanda

South Africa has plenty of sunshine, and two Port Elizabeth-based entrepreneurs want to use this to charge the Millbug Vuya Tablet, a device they conceptualised locally. Vuya means “be happy” in isiXhosa.

Millbug was founded in 2012 by Sabelo Sibanda, 30, and Thulisile Volwana, 22. It started as an e-commerce company selling women’s clothing. “We wanted to create an e-commerce platform and sell to our peers, the 15 to 35 age demographic,” says Sibanda.

Sibanda started in advertising, but it was not until he met World Wide Creative CEO Fred Roed that he realised how big the e-commerce opportunity in South Africa could be. But he learnt the hard way that people are less inclined to purchase tactile products on small-screen devices like smartphones.

This led to the idea of selling a tablet PC, “so that customers could enjoy a better e-commerce experience”, says Sibanda. After doing some in-depth research, Sibanda discovered that the easiest way to develop a solar powered tablet and to keep the price low was to build it overseas. “Besides our own ambitions on the e-commerce side, we saw a need as far as ICT for education is concerned,” says Sibanda.

During the research phase for the project, Sibanda says he discovered that the CSIR had researched the benefits of technology for rural education and health. “Thulisile is from a small rural village, Ngcobo in the Eastern Cape, and we thought we may as well do some good along the way as we pursue our ambitions,” says Sibanda. “It became a two-pronged approach to meet our goals.

“We discovered massive online open courses and we learnt as much as we could about electronics,” says Sibelo.

Millbug received R35 000 in funding and other support from the Small Enterprise Development Agency (Seda). “We are very lucky. Seda is very supportive and they helped us get in touch with contract manufacturers to build the Millbug Vuya. They also helped us through the certification process and helped us get the relevant Icasa licences, all paid for by Seda. We just had to do the work,” says Sibanda. The rest was self-funded.

When Millbug shifted from being an e-commerce store, the duo created Forefinga, an e-commerce platform that allows other aspiring e-commerce entrepreneurs to benefit from the Vuya tablet.

The Wi-Fi-only Vuya is a 7-inch tablet running the latest version of Android’s operating system (4.4 KitKat). It has a 1,2GHz processor, 512MB of memory and 4GB of storage.

A solar charger is bundled. “We found that the photovoltaic cells in the solar panels we wanted to integrate into the device were not powerful enough to charge the 3 000mAh battery.”

Also, some components melt in the sun. “For practical reasons, we built a detachable power bank rated at 5 000mAh, which is charged using the sun’s power,” says Sibanda. The Vuya tablet can also be charged via USB or a traditional power outlet.

The Millbug Vuya tablet

The Millbug Vuya tablet

The tablet is available in a number of colours, including black, red, blue and purple, and Sibanda says Millbug is planning another device with a larger screen and built-in 3G support. “We wanted our first tablet to be accessible.”

The Vuya tablet is a hybrid, says Sibanda. “Its printed circuit board and schematic were developed in South Africa, but the unit is built overseas.” Sibanda says that there has been great interest in the tablet. “We are meeting with large companies and we have received a lot of interest.”

He says there has been “some interest” from telecommunications operators, but he does not want to say who until contracts are signed. “We were also surprised that there has been interest from non-telcos — from large companies that want to use the Vuya tablet for their corporate social responsibility initiatives,” says Sibanda.

Education will be an important focus. “We have some university students developing apps for this device under the guidance of Darelle van Greunen, the professor and research group leader of the user experience group at the Institute for ICT Advancement at Nelson Mandela Bay University.”

The Millbug Vuya tablet will retail for R1 499 when it is launched at the end of June.  — © 2014 NewsCentral Media

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