Artificial Intelligence in Africa

 

Seebox is a game changer in the future of education in Africa. The inventor, Johann Kok, is a humble genius with a giant vision: reinvent how African schools and companies train today’s youth to be tomorrow’s engineers.

 

Seebox was granted $150,000 from the African Entrepreneurship Award, which propelled it into top conversations on engineering education on the continent.  A humbly passionate entrepreneur and inventor Johann explains “this prize did more than keep our struggling company’s doors open, it also opened up a lot of connections with customers.”

Johann is a consummate entrepreneur and inventor because the journey never ends. He is now taking his invention, which began for students to love and learn engineering, beyond the home and school. He is expanding to assist with engineering careers, companies looking to boost employee’s technical skills, and engaging with Artificial Intelligence’s role in big data to measure the efficacy of the software. And, SeeBox has added some important pivots since they won the Award in 2015.  But first, what exactly is Seebox?

 

Seebox and an Artificially Intelligent Future

 

Seebox, Johann’s winning Education business idea in the 2015 African Entrepreneurship Award delivers 21st century electronic and mechanical engineering instruction to students using a proprietary gaming platform. Consisting of a gaming console that is compatible with computers and tablets, Seebox software utilizes educational engineering videos, followed by playboards that allow gamers to apply the lessons they’ve learned. Fun and creativity are not abandoned, as gamers solve real-world and hypothetical problems, putting engineering into action.

 

The vision of Seebox has always remained the same: prepare students for future job markets, job markets populated by AI. These job markets require critically thinking engineers with tech know-how. They require a skill-set that stays ahead of the artificially intelligent world. Alan Turing, the prescient 20th century father of modern computing and artificial intelligence said, “We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.” Johann believes that Seebox is one thing that can be done to prepare students for this increasingly present future. Johann says that at the heart of Seebox, is a desire to “prevent thousands, or even millions, of kids from being unemployed when they leave school because they won’t have technical engineering skills.”

 

Johann holds a Seebox, his proprietary engineering invention
Johann holds a Seebox, his proprietary engineering invention

“Seebox would absolutely not have existed” without the Award

 

This vision for the future was in doubt. Johann remembers the message he typed to his staff on October 12, 2015: “Stop developing Seebox. We don’t have enough money. Time to look for new jobs.” A group of creative software developers and engineers in South Africa sat with a nearly completed prototype for investors. Without the finished prototype, investors were not willing to bite.

 

But in October 2015, while the prototype was on hold and the disbanded team in despair, Johann heard his name announced in Marrakech, Morocco, by BMCE Bank of Africa: “The Winner of the Education Category, for the most scalable, sustainable and socially impactful business, for $150,000 goes to Johann Kok and Seebox!” With this announcement, Johann accepted the prize, sat down in a daze, and quickly texted his South African team: “We won! Don’t leave! We can finish the prototype!”

 

Impact of the Mentoring: From Geek to Business Guru

 

How did Johann – a brilliant engineer who is more comfortable inventing than pitching – get to Marrakech, Morocco? In the spring of 2015, Johann’s business manager and wife, Mardine, applied to the African Entrepreneurship Award hoping to convince investors to award some of the $1 million USD to Seebox.  Mardine remembers the online application: “It was very different than other prizes. It gave tips – both on how to fill out the form, what they were looking for – and advice that helped us improve our business idea. Nobody had helped us. Nobody had ever mentored online.”

 

After the first round, Johann and Mardine received a mentor’s feedback, among other things, telling them:

 

“A top-notch submission! It’s impressive to learn of this innovative concept that will not merely serve an education purpose and fill a vacuum in Africa, but elsewhere around the globe too.”

 

After being selected as Most Needed in Southern Africa in Round 1, Johann and Mardine then had to think about Seebox’s competition, marketing and how to scale this invention across Africa. For two months, they received free, online mentoring from businessmen across Africa, one who told him:

 

“Excellent idea, promoting the need for engineering education. Investors will want to see the prototype and field trial results. Consider how to demonstrate this using viral, social media options…Ensure they tell your story and adopt early.”

 

Johann and Mardine improved their idea and were selected as Most Likely to Succeed across Africa. Then, they had to put together a sustainable financial and leadership plan. At this point, global entrepreneurs offered practical leadership advice, specific to Johann and Seebox.

 

After several back and forth conversations, Johann and Mardine discovered bootstrapping and how to create a prototype with less cost and quick impact by focusing on just a few client groups. By working with global mentors and carefully listening to their advice, the Seebox proposal was chosen as a Most Sustainable Business Idea and Johann was invited to Morocco to pitch to a Presidential Jury for part of $1M USD.

 

Johann remembers coming to Morocco: “I am not a public speaker. I am a geek. So, I get very nervous in front of people. I forget what I want to say. I am just an engineer. Put me in front of a circuit board any day, but not a board of people. Before I had to pitch, they gave me a personal coach and we worked for three long days practicing how I would explain this AI invention. He was so patient – but I know he was worried that I would really mess it up! I was shaking when I went in front of the Presidential Jury. But they acted like interested friends! They were Africans, one was a gamer, one was a software developer, and one was a professor. So, they wanted to touch Seebox and try it out. Pretty soon, I was just talking to them, sharing my passion and vision for helping African youth fall in love with engineering and learning

 

Companies use Seeboxes to train their engineers on new skills.
Companies use Seeboxes to train their engineers on new skills.

Creating Jobs and Improving Lives

 

Seebox impacts on multiple levels. On the instruction side, Seebox creates access for students like never before. Implementing Seebox in the classroom does not require a qualified engineer or scientist. With Seeboxes installed, all instruction is delivered by the software, and all tracking of student progress happens remotely, so long as there is an internet connection. A core objective of Seebox is to make engineering education widely accessible. With the built-in tracking feature, it doesn’t take a trained engineer to manage the machines.

 

As of the summer of 2017, Seebox has 16 clients, including universities, innovation hubs, training centers, as well as individual parents and teachers. Universities use Seebox to augment their programs, and many home school parents find that Seebox offers a great boost in their ability to provide 21st century instruction for their students.

 

Currently, Seebox finished production on 50 Seebox units. As the word grows about Seebox, Johann expects that number to increase. In fact, three new technical school clients have already put in an order for 20 Seeboxes, each.

 

Beyond the classroom, the impact of Seebox continues to grow. Johann now has 5 full-time employees, with 3 additional jobs in the pipeline. In addition, local production of Seeboxes ensures 10 more manufacturing jobs sourced through local companies. Still in the bootstrapping stages, Johann has found a way to train young engineers, save money, and increase impact. Over school breaks, intern engineering students help develop software, build, and test machines. Johann says that “With me they get real experience. I don’t give them silly work to do. I give them real engineering work.” The impact trickles down to his employees and Johann sees working with interns as another opportunity for his engineers to move up the ladder and learn valuable management skills.

 

Marketing Challenges, Bumps, and Pivots

 

Winning the African Entrepreneurship Award in 2015 brought $150,000 of seed funding to Johann and Seebox, coupled with continued mentoring. The Seebox of today, Johann says, “Would absolutely not have existed” without Award funding.

 

While the core of Johann’s idea has not changed, other aspects have developed since winning the Award. For the first 12 months after that exciting October day, businessmen helped steer Johann through the early stages market choices. In the beginning, Johann says that the emphasis was all about the product, an area that he was most confident in, even before winning.

Johann says the shift from product focus to marketing focus “was a phase I had to evolve through to learn how to do that. That was a big learning curve for me.” This meant learning which markets to pursue at which time. It meant adding pre-loaded engineering content to the machine, an element that made his product far more marketable and increased employment. It meant a corporate social development feature that tracks live user results so schools and corporate clients see tangible proof that Seebox is helping students, a direct return on their investments.

But, despite this progress, Johann says that “we were expecting to be profitable quicker, but very few of those promises to buy Seeboxes materialized,” despite the robust marketing campaign of his team.

Enter the business pivot and the franchise model.

It all clicked for Johann when he realized that schools are less inclined to integrate a new product without training, and parents are little inclined to pay up front for a new Seebox machine. Johann pivoted his sales model to a franchise model, and he says, “a Seebox franchisee can earn a good income, while we earn a recurring income instead of simply selling hardware.” Johann says Seebox immediately attracted more interest to the franchise model. Certified vendors can buy a pack of Seeboxes and set up anywhere. Johann says that, “For parents, access to a Seebox requires a very small amount of money to pay to give their kids that extra edge. For the person who buys the franchise, it’s an extra income.”

And, the marketing changes didn’t stop there. Johann says that “while developing the franchise model another big market became clear to use – technical skills development in the work place.” For companies, of which there are many, who desire to train their employees, Seebox developed a leasing model. Johann says, “A company can get a Seebox on their premises completely free of charge, and only pay for the hours (sessions) of training.”

First an inventor to help African youth, then an entrepreneur, now a job-creator: the engineers of tomorrow thank you Johann for inventing Seebox, for creating jobs, for improving lives and most of all inspiring other African engineers to become inventors and entrepreneurs.