A new ‘made in Africa’ tablet computer from the Republic of Congo was announced in June 2011 to much fanfare in online tech media, including in the popular Engadget blog and on Global Voices. While technical innovation in Africa is worth celebrating, there are a few grey areas in the story that should lead people to question whether the computer marketed by Congolese company VMK is actually designed, developed or engineered there.
On at least two previous occasions in Nigeria and Zimbabwe, consumers have falsely been led to believe that new inexpensive computers were developed in Africa, when they instead turned out to be rebranded Chinese imports.
Could this be the case for the VMK Tablet?
According to the company, it will be available for purchase in September at the retail price of 200,000 Francs CFA (roughly US$400 or EUR300).
Taking a closer look
The plan is for the VMK tablet to debut during the Africa Web Summit in the capital Brazzaville, which is hosted by the Ministry as part of their effort to see Congo become a Central African digital hub.
I interviewed Mankou on Skype text chat and he told me that the research and development department of VMK is only a “tiny department”. Considering how much weight other technology companies put on “R&D” I was surprised that VMK managed with much less. It was likewise surprising to discover another interview with Mankou on Cameroonian website Ingenieris [fr] where he apparently describes the development of the tablet as a major expense:
Ingenieris: VMK Congo est-elle rentable?
VMK: (Rires). Elle aurait pu être rentable si je n’avais pas eu l’idée de lancer une tablette. C’est une idée très couteuse en effet. Elle avoisine à elle seule près 80% de notre budget, vous imaginez les concessions que nous faisons tout le temps pour financer ce projet. Je profite de cette occasion pour féliciter toute l’équipe de VMK qui comprends les enjeux et accepte de travailler dans ces conditions.
Designed and engineered in Congo or China?
In my chat with Verone Mankou on Skype, he told me that he himself designed the hardware. Mankou said:
Je me suis occupé tout seul de la conception de la tablette. Pour la conception de l'appstore-like de la tablette j'ai delegué ce travail à un ami qui est au Canada… idem pour la conception de l'interface qui a été confiée à un partenaire en Asie.
On the following picture taken from VMK's blog on the tablet, it says the tablet is “Designed and Engineered in Congo by VMK”. On the picture below, posted on May 24, 2011 on the same blog, the story has changed, and the words on the tablet say: “Designed in Congo. Assembled in China.”
These are just prototype photos, but do they suggest a fluid understanding of the difference between drawing, designing and engineering technology hardware? In my interview, I asked Mankou about the disparity on the photos, and he explained this was a result of the product prototype evolving over time:
Au cours de la conception j'ai decidé de migrer vers une nouvelle mouture plus aboutie et plus ergonomique.
Assembled or Made in China?
So the tablet is assembled in China. VMK have even posted photos from a visit to the factory on their blog. The name of the factory has been blurred, but one license plate confirms that it is located in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province which is a huge economic center and the headquarter of many tech companies. It is also the heart of China's “shanzai” electronic pirating trade.
It's no secret that the tablet is assembled in China, but it's worth considering how easy it is to get similar electronics produced and branded in Shenzen. The VMK tablet has a 7-inch screen, a 1.2 GHz processor, and uses the Android Operating System. Online electronic retailer and wholesaler, McBub.com (based in Shenzen) advertises a tablet with very similar specifications and similar design. If you order in bulk you can get them branded with your own company's logo for only a little extra.
The basic retail price is about half that of VMK's tablet.
I asked Verone Mankou why someone would spend more money to buy the VMK tablet, when they could have a similar product for a lower price, and he explained the difference in price is mainly due to to VMK's planned “after-sales services” and local presence in Congo.
VMK has only released photos showing the rear of the tablet, because they say they are “still in the process of securing various trademarks” and don't want to “encourage copycats“. On the prototype photos, VMK's logo occasionally appears with the “V” reversed.
Past “Made in Africa” disappointments
On Skype, I also interviewed Patrick-Eric Mampouya, a Congolese journalist and blogger [fr] who said he is skeptical about the VMK tablet being made in Africa, and specifically in the Republic of Congo:
On peut mettre de belles images sur un blog sans qu'il y ait une quelconque réalité. On ne peut pas apprécier ce genre de technologie sur les images. (…) Je peux prendre n'importe quel tablette et changer le logo.
In November 2010, a Zimbwabean company announced that it would sell a locally manufactured, assembled and produced laptop at the price of 200 dollars. Many Zimbabweans purchased the device to support a local initiative and the economy. Disappointment was great when it transpired in February 2011 that the Nhava laptop was “imported from China, and only rebranded Nhava“.
In one Zimbabwean online forum, a comment celebrating the new VMK tablet (“Hooray! Congo makes a tablet computer!!!”) is met by a skeptical comment by another forum member.
Acerbically, Vakuru Chaivo writes:
Do you remember the “Nhava” guys who used to lie that they “manufacture” laptops in Zimbabwe? All they did was trawl the backyards of China picking up laptops discarded by experimenting Chinese high school students and then stick their Nhava logo and then ……voila..we had our first “indigenous laptop manufacturers”. I hope its not the same issue with the VMK tablet.