While major manufacturers are dipping their toes in the tablet market opened up by Apple's iPad, smaller companies are looking towards niches that the big players might overlook. We chat to Vérone Mankou, founder of African start-up VMK, to find out what's going on in the heart of the Congo.
At 25, Mankou is one of the younger players in the world of hardware. Starting his love of IT at just seven years old, Mankou has spent his working life immersed in Africa's technology industry. "I started in a local ISP as a network architect, then I moved to become the IT manager of a public company in Pointe-Noire - Congo's second city," he explained to thinq_ by way of background. "In 2008 I was hired at Brazzaville - the capital - in the Ministry of Post, Telecommunications and ICT."
While Mankou loves his job, which has seen him take on the role of coordinating a project with the World Bank in the Congo on the promotion of IT use in the area, he founded his own company VMK in 2009, originally as a web agency. Since then, Mankou's dreams have grown, and back in 2010 he announced that he intended to build a tablet specifically for the African market.
"The needs in Africa are the same as everywhere else," he told us, "except that they want the same things in Europe or the US at a more affordable price. Roughly speaking, the African market is a remake of the old South East Asian one - except that in Africa no-one supports having something of poor quality. I think that's now the case in all developing nations, including those in South East Asia. So, to design a product for this market is quite complicated because you have to find the right ratio of quality to price."
That's something that outside companies like Apple, Samsung, HP, and Research in Motion don't fully understand, Mankou argues. "In Africa we don't have the same purchasing power as the rest of the world. There are not that many people here who have the money to buy an Apple, BlackBerry or Samsung tablet," he explained. "The quality to price ratio is too high for the average African, and that's the real problem."
Mankou's solution is a home-grown tablet that offers a better quality to price ratio, designed locally, that will be available to a greater percentage of Africa's population than an imported device. "I think Africa had difficulty following the PC revolution in its early days, and it was the same for the smartphone revolution. There can be no question of us missing the tablet revolution."
As with the majority of tablet manufacturers, Mankou has chosen to use Google's Android platform - specifically, Android 2.3.3 'Gingerbread' - on his device. When asked why, he jokes: "Because I had no choice! Apple's iOS is inaccessible, MeeGo is not yet mature, Windows... In a tablet, it's a disaster. Anyway, I must admit that Android is a good choice: it is open - at least for now, for all that Oracle is trying to change that - and I do not regret the decision to work with it. It's an OS that doesn't give headaches... unlike some others!"
The hardware behind Mankou's creation is pretty impressive, too. Featuring a 7-inch touch screen, a 1.2GHz processor, 512MB of RAM, 4GB of NAND Flash storage, and 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi connectivity, it easily betters some of the cheaper tablets available in the UK.
For a small company like VMK, there are plenty of obstacles to overcome before the tablet becomes a commercial reality. "It is often easier to trade with countries outside Africa than with other African countries - taxes are a real obstacle. Logistics and supply could pose big problem, too: we assemble our tablet in China, and that's not exactly next door!"
Despite this, Mankou is confident that he holds the key to offering Africa the tablet that it needs. "I trust the quality of this tablet," he stated boldly. "It's true that there is still much to do - financially, especially - but I think everything will be resolved in time to satisfy those who are already impatient. Personally, I think the tablet will be in shops before the end of this year."
Mankou's creation, if it lives up to its creator's lofty ideals, could prove invaluable for the provision of communications services in the country. "The idea was to find a solution to provide Internet access to the largest number, because in Africa almost everywhere has problems with electrical supply - so a portable device was the best solution, and a tablet was ideal."
More information on Mankou's company and the progress of his tablet is available on the VMK Congo website. Mankou is hoping to show off working samples of the tablet at the Africa Web Summit in September.