With no formal training in electronics engineering, young innovator creates a unique anti theft solution
By Amos Wachira
From Morris Mbetsa is a gifted innovator. At the age of 18, he created his first commercial innovation, a car tracking system, even though he doesn’t have any formal training in electronics. From the humble beginnings in Mombasa’s Mariakani suburb, Mbetsa has rocked the world with his innovation, dubbed Block and Track. Here is how he started.
As a small boy growing up in Mariakani in Mombasa, Mbetsa’s pastime was dismantling and rebuilding electronic gadgets. Unbeknown to him, the gadgets would propel him to the crest of innovation later in life. He grew up in an impoverished household where his grandmother struggled to put food on their table. Due to their humble background, Mbetsa’s household had no TV set. Like many other young boys in the area, he used to frequent video dens in the area where he could pay to watch television and other entertaining movies. It was in those video dens that he realized he was gifted in the field of electronics.
“There were two such places at the time. I approached the owner of the less popular video den and offered him a device that would interfere with the other den’s frequency in exchange for free viewing. It was wrong, but there I was with a solution, and it worked,” says Mbetsa.
After high school, Mbetsa moved in with a cousin in Nairobi’s Kibera slums, determined to unshackle himself from the chains of poverty. His experiments with technology started right after high school. One of his friends was carjacked, an experience that not only left him helpless, but pushed him to think of a solution to rising levels of such incidences in his area.
Determined to find a solution, he created a car anti theft device. Block and Track is an SMS-based vehicle security system that enables car-owners to monitor their vehicle from a distance. The system he invented brings the whole concept of vehicle security into one’s hand thanks to the mobile phone.
All that a car-owner needs is a phone in which he installs a program. Under the hood, he also connects wires and the like to the engine. Once the device is set up, the car-owner can lock the doors by just sending an SMS. In case the car has been stolen, there is no need to panic. All the owner needs to do is to send an SMS with a code to stop the car wherever it is located provided there is network coverage from the mobile operator. The system is also fitted with a tracking device that will locate, on a map, the location of the car.
This system is very simple as it does not require a computer or monthly subscription fee, like most other solutions. All that one needs is a mobile phone with airtime.
The system enables one to control the various functions of a car through commands via a mobile phone; for instance, you can stop your car, lock the doors, monitor and restrict its movement. He made his first million then, after a client made a bulk order.
The youthful innovator demonstrates that Africa has the capacity to develop solutions for its problems. While there are many great ideas coming from Kenyan innovators, few see the light of day. Limited funding for instance scuttles such ideas and keeps them from being conceptualized into award winning solutions.
“Africa has the potential to compete at the world stage, but only if we became the producers, instead of the consumers that we are. It would also help if our governments would support local innovators instead of favouring imported technology.”
For Mbetsa, his big break came when his innovation caught the eye of the then CEO of the National Commission for Science and Technology (NACOSTI), Professor Shaukat Abdulrazak. The institution funded the development of his idea especially in the initial phases. He was also given a rare chance to learn from the best in the industry. Later on, Mbetsa travelled to China to learn more about manufacturing. On returning home after a short sint of three months, the enthusiastic innovator felt tha he was well prepared o delve into business.
“I learnt a lot from china. Most of the values I instill in my company today were acquired from the Chinese.”
With the technical knowhow, Mbetsa set out to start his company, Mbetsa Innovations. He started refining the concept and designing ways of improving his car security company. He has since come up with over 10 more innovations, including Auto Pad, a car recognition system.
His firm is an electronics designing company that deals with electronics design from software,firmware,pcb design and fabrication of devices such as home automation systems,car security devices,tablets and home security systems.
For his innovations, he has bagged a number of accolades, key among them being the Inventor of the year award from the National Commission of Science and Technology (2010-2012). In 2013, his company received Vision 2030’s Best Manufacturing Company award.
In 2015, he was nominated for the Mandela Washington fellowship, a flagship program of President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative This led to a three-month scholarship to the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, in the US. After his fellowship, he received a job offer from technology giant, IBM.
“IBM offered me employment at their innovation centre, an opportunity I was excited about because this is a leading tech firm.” His new found job did not last long. A month into the job though he resigned since he was not satisfied with playing a small role in the bigger process. “I am a hands-on individual.”
When he came back to Kenya, Mbetsa received another job offer, this time from Microsoft, another leading tech company. Again, he resigned, this time after a month since he felt under utilised.
“After this, I decided to focus on my own innovations – among these is a revenue collection system that I designed for Kilifi County,” he explains. He is not yet done. He is optimistic of making his innovation a global success. If his recent foray into the Nigerian market is anything to go by, his dream is finally unfolding.
“The Nigerian market has been good to me, though initially I faced a lot of opposition because I am a foreigner. I proved my technical prowess however, and the Nigerian market has now embraced me.
I am now in the process of importing a specialized machine that will enable us to scale up our manufacturing process, which will aid our growth in the West African market and in turn increase our revenues.”
Mbetsa has also diversified his business. With a purified water business in Mombasa County, he wants to become a household name not just in the field of vehicle security but also in other areas. His innovation outfit employs 50 people directly, and an average of 200 people indirectly benefit from it.
Considering his background, challenges have always dogged his ambitions. While starting, he did not have a mentor to guide him through the ropes of business. “I learned through mistakes. People did not believe in m ability to deliver since I was a young man. They would instead go for imported solutions,” he says of the main challenge facing young innovators.
He plans to scale up his business and establish a footprint throughout Africa. Having experienced firsthand, the challenges that local innovators face while trying to create technology led solutions, he says that one of his future goals is incubating and financing upcoming innovators.