Israel | News

Israeli start-up hoping USB drives will bridge digital divide

TEL AVIV (JTA) — In Peter Jairus’ Nairobi neighborhood, almost nobody has a personal computer.

Mathare is one of the Kenyan capital’s largest slums. Buildings are constructed from sheets of corrugated metal and Internet access is rare, found only in places like schools or community centers. Even then, the connection can be spotty.

So when Jairus heard about Keepod, a cheap device that places a computer’s operating system on a small USB drive, he jumped at the idea. Last April he met with Keepod’s creators, and six months later 60 of the devices were delivered to Mathare.

Jairus, a musician and youth activist, now runs a cybercafe where 30 to 40 people come daily to go online with their Keepods.

“The Keepod is very personal to everyone,” Jairus told JTA. “People use it for studying, someone else is using it for YouTube, Facebook, social media. This one is using it for research.

“It helps the community very, very much because a lot of people cannot afford the laptop, and 99 percent of the community could not have computer access.”

Based in Tel Aviv, the Keepod company aims to provide the world’s poorest countries with widespread computer and Internet access. By putting a modern computer operating system on affordable USB drives, users are able to connect to the Internet using older — and much less expensive — computers.

Founders Nissan Bahar and Franky Imbesi say their innovation will help bridge the so-called digital divide — the gap between those with and without regular computer access.

“People can access information to empower themselves,” Bahar said. “That means education, health care, personal growth, being able to read and see what’s going on around the world through a free medium.”

Attempts to bring Internet access to the world’s poorest people are hardly new. Nearly a decade ago, the United Nations backed an effort to create a $100 laptop through One Laptop Per Child, a project that aimed to bring inexpensive computers to developing nations.

But Bahar believes such efforts are impractical on a large scale because even $100 can be hard to afford for citizens of developing countries. Keepods cost just $7 a pop, and by allowing users to store their personal information on the drive, people can use their individual Keepods to share a single computer, further depressing the cost of Internet access.

Keepod has arranged to collect some of the tens of millions of computers discarded each year and ship them to schools and community centers in the developing world at a cost of under $100 each.

“[It’s] something very cheap that people won’t even try to steal, that if you lose it, you replace it,” Bahar said. “We don’t believe in making a cheap computer; $140 will never be cheap enough.”

When they began Keepod in 2011, Bahar and Imbesi aimed to create a USB drive that kept all of a user’s data on a small external drive rather than on a computer’s internal hard drive. By keeping sensitive information off the computer, the product gave users an added layer of security.

In late 2013, Bahar and Imbesi realized their device could be a boon for those in the developing world who shared computers. Keepods can run a modern Android operating system even on older computers. And because every program will be run from the USB drive, viruses won’t infect whole computers.

“After a couple of years, my partner and myself started seriously questioning what we were doing in life,” Bahar said. “How we could make a positive impact on the world around us instead of just making products?”

Keepod has already sold more than 30,000 USB drives. This year, Bahar hopes to vastly increase that number. About half of the company’s sales have been made through partnerships with NGOs; the rest are purchased directly from Keepod’s website. The device is also available through retailers.

College Socka Bongue, a 500-student high school in Cameroon, bought USB drives for its students last year along with 26 used computers. Philippe Socke, the executive director of a foundation that funds programs at the school, said the drives have allowed them to conduct research on the Internet for the first time.

After so many years of limited digital access, the transition has been a challenge. Socke said only about 5 percent of the students have computers at home.

“The administration was still relying on pads of paper and chalkboards,” Socke said. “Not having computer experience negatively affected the education. Our collaboration with Keepod literally allowed us to put computer access in the hands of every student.”

Still, Keepod has encountered some challenges in putting their product into the hands of those who would most benefit from it. Two of the five funded projects listed on Keepod’s website have fallen through because the company’s NGO partners could not afford it or faced infrastructure challenges.

At one of the two, the WhyNot Academy in Mathare, 26 students had Keepods last year. Now only seven have them. Students either lost them or transferred to other schools, taking the devices with them. The school also lost Internet access for several months, making the Keepods far less useful.

Mike Dawson, CEO of Ustad Mobile, which installs educational programs on smartphones for children in the developing world, said that spotty electricity, plus the challenge of maintaining old computers, present obstacles to the wide deployment of Keepod technology.

“The problems come from electricity costs, come from maintenance costs, come from access to skilled people,” he said. “These are all costs, and they don’t add up to $7 per person.”

Unreliable infrastructure may continue to hinder Keepod, but Bahar hopes that selling the drives through retailers — in addition to providing them through NGOs — will give increasing numbers of people access to the digital world, at least when the Internet is on.
“We want to enable anyone to buy a Keepod and use it, if not part of an NGO or organization,” he said. “We want to be sustainable.”