Brian Mwiti is the creator of the Sixth Sense, a modern hand-held mobility device for visually impaired people that enables independent movement. The device uses sound vibrations (the technology used by bats for navigation), to sense obstacles up to 3 metres detecting obstacles in front, on the ground, and above the head. Brian has also been shortlisted as part 16 innovators in the 2018 Africa Prize competition by the Royal Academy of Engineering.
What inspired the sixth sense?
I am passionate about change in the society, in the sense that we are moving so fast in terms of technology but there is a group of people who are left behind, often women and people living with disabilities. So I am passionate about transformation for this group of people, empowerment so that we can move together as one people. That’s why I came up with the sixth sense.
What made you passionate about this group of people?
We usually feel like these people are different; not part of us so we treat them differently, I work with visually impaired people and the world has created a small world for them where we even give them a different language, braille. Why can’t they use the normal language? We don’t make them part of us and as we are making technology to solve our challenges, we are not creating technology for them.
Describe your typical day.
My day is quite tight, my typical day starts at 4 am in the morning, and I actually made it a routine for the past few months, whether it’s a weekend or a weekday. I wake up at 4 am in the morning, meditate, do a few exercises and prepare for work-leaving my house at 5 am (no traffic jam), by 6 am I am seated at work and have started my day.
From 6-8 am I work on my mind and I usually do some mathematics, from basic algebra to advanced calculus. Math is good for exercising the brain and I want to be an expert in the field of math and applied physics in the next few years. I then work from 8 am to 4 pm in the evening. From 4-pm I usually learn a new skill, this might be computer programing or I might read a novel-something different from what I normally do.
From 6-8 pm that’s my personal time, I am a religious person and I take this take to go to church, we normally have some evening services, or read the Bible. I get home by 9 pm and by 10 pm I’m asleep, I get 6 hours of sleep every day.
Describe that moment you knew that your idea might actually be successful.
Well, I have always had this desire to make a change in the society, with the visually impaired people, back in high school our school had a programme called The Kenya Integrated Educational Programme where a school hosts people living with disabilities and able-bodied students in the same classroom. Actually one of the people I’m working with on this project is a former schoolmate who is visually impaired too and we reconnected in campus.
In school even in choosing subjects, the teachers would discourage them from taking certain subjects like physics, which they claimed they couldn’t teach, but what if you wanted to do engineering? You see, your whole life/career is disrupted which isn’t fair. We should have tools to help them learn sciences, in fact, that might be something I could look into later on in life that might be the next venture for me.
When I joined campus to pursue electrical engineering that’s when I became interested in technology. I began exploring how I could make things better for the visually impaired, which from what I have observed, the main problem is mobility. Looking at the statistics we have one million visually impaired people in Kenya but when you walk around town how many of them do you see? Very few. By solving this issue of mobility we are hoping many of these people will start engaging in more activities and walking around with confidence.
The sixth sense is a device aimed at giving people with visual impairment confidence, freedom to walk around and explore different things instead of locking themselves up in their rooms.
Is the sixth sense device currently on the market?
We are currently in product development, we have done two prototype iterations and tested with the market and the reception is good. So in a few months, we expect to go to market. We are even collaborating with engineers from other countries to bring in more features, advanced technology and make the device better.
Since you are collaborating with other developers in other parts of the world, are you concerned about somebody copying it?
Not so much, personally, I view visual impairment as a huge problem and the more people working to solve it the better, especially when someone sees the concept and improves on it. However, we have protected the device with patents. Intellectual property is usually an issue particularly with investors who would in most cases want to know your IP status when looking to invest.
Well, speaking of investors, how did you get from being a student at the University of Nairobi to dealing with investors and getting funding for your idea?
Aah! It’s really not that hard, so many people are thinking of launching a business and the first thing that comes to mind is how do I get funded. That is the wrong question, the question to ask is how I get to market-if the market embraces your product you will get funded-if you win in the market you will get investors.
I would say just build something as rough as you can and get it out there; document the people using it, the feedback etc. For me, it was documenting the visually impaired people interacting with my product. Having done that, even while sitting down with investors it won’t be your word anymore but the markets’ word. Instead of telling investors that I am making a product for the visually impaired and they love it, I show them a video of the visually impaired people using it and tell them that they love it but I am looking for money to improve it.
Having travelled to different countries, what have you seen about the start-up scene out there that is different from Kenya?
Well, I have been fortunate enough to visit Kigali, Cape Town, and London, in South Africa and Britain they are mainly doing apps and websites; solving everyday problems with products for shopping, deliveries etc. I observed that Funding in these countries is easier, in Kenya you really have to work to get funding, most of the funding is from external sources which is very sad-I don’t know why our own people are not investing on start-ups, we need more Kenyans investing in our start-ups.
Also, most start-ups in Kenya are not solving everyday problems people are doing artificial intelligence, people are looking at developing for the fourth industrial revolution in places that even haven’t experience the first one at all. We should look at our own problems and build solutions around that, Kenya’s 40 million population is a big market.
What challenges have you faced so far?
The main challenge is the low level of technology in Kenya in regards to hardware and since the sixth sense is a hardware device, getting hardware locally has been hard. We have had to outsource some skills, import the parts, which wastes a lot of time and sometimes the costs can triple the amount it would have cost if the parts were locally available.
Generally, we have gotten a lot of support, in terms of entrepreneurship training. I have an engineering background, hence I really appreciate the training I have gotten that introduced me to this whole different world of business. I’m just a tech guy who wants to make a difference.
You participated in the Pitch at Palace competition this year, how was the experience?
The experience was great, in the competition, you get three minutes to pitch your idea and then get one question posed to you. Afterwards, people interested in your idea would approach you for support and offer support. The event is held by the Duke of York in England, so being in a real palace was exciting, we had the royal family-the prince, investors, people from the media, NGOs; all these high profile people; a chance to make valuable connections.
What advice would you give to any other aspiring entrepreneur looking to start out?
I would say you really need to believe in what you are doing, and have passion. When you start out, it is really exciting, then after you do it for a while you get tired and you need to sell yourself the idea every day. You have to remember the vision to stay motivated and work at it every single day to build something great.
What’s next for you?
Well, you’ll get to see the sixth sense very soon, my primary goal at the moment is to make this device a reality. Working with the visually impaired really has opened my eyes to a lot that needs to be done, we are a world that is sending people to Mars and yet 4 out 100 people still walk around with sticks, what does it really say about us as a civilization?
You can find out more about the sixth sense from their website and on Facebook.
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