HIT dropout builds functional airtime vending machine prototype from scrap

   
George Chingore presenting the Protonics airtime vending machines
George Chingore presenting the Protonics airtime vending machines

George Chingore, a Harare Institute of Technology (HIT) dropout has built a functional airtime vending machine prototype from scrap computer components he assembled through the help of friends. George Chingore pitched his airtime vending machine prototype at Pitch Night hosted by Emerging Ideas.

George was presenting his venture called Protonics which he hopes will replace human airtime vendors and provide a revenue stream that works a 24 hour shift.

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There was a bit of an uneasiness within the crowd during George’s presentation because in all fairness, the device looked like something that wouldn’t work. However, after demoing the device to the audience, the device immediately stole the Night as people queued to get a glimpse of a Zimbabwean made vending machines, and yes, to actually buy airtime from it.

Because of cash challenges that startup face, The Protronic airtime vending machine prototype is made of old PC components that George collected from friends. I spoke to George and he said he had hoped to make users interface with the device via a touch screen but for now the device uses an LCD screen embedded inside an old CPU shell that also houses the processor and a GSM communicator that does the magic in airtime transactions electronically.

An audience member enters his phone number on the Protronics airtime vending machine prototype
An audience member enters his phone number on the Protronics airtime vending machine prototype
The Protronic airtime vending machine has a regular QWERTY keyboard as a keypad
The Protronic airtime vending machine has a regular QWERTY keyboard as a keypad

You wont need to familiarise with the buttons on the Protronics airtime vending machine because the keypad, at least on the prototype, is made from your regular qwerty keyboard used on desktop PCs. The keyboard only displays the numbers area to the right whilst letters and everything else is covered by a white cardboard paper.

Although the device does communicate with a mobile network and sends the airtime to buyers electronically within seconds, it still needs a bill validator for people to deposit cash into it.

George didn’t go all the way to reveal how much he needs to produce more (better looking) devices like these but judging from the excitement and feedback he got from the audience, George may just be starting on an exciting journey.

Tommy Deuschle, Emerging Ideas Co-founder and host, called it the “most fascinating “thing he’d ever seen at Pitch Night and he is not alone in reaching that verdict. Right after the pitches were over, people quickly gathered to see the Protronics airtime vending machine in action stealing the limelight from two other pitches that were also great by any standards.

However excited and fascinated people were about this product, there were still some doubts raised about it’s commercially viability. One criticism was that in light of mobile money products that allow people to buy airtime at anytime from anywhere, the airtime vending machine may just be a thing for the past.

The Protonics airtime vending machine "busy" processing a transaction.
The Protonics airtime vending machine “busy” processing a transaction.

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George’s response to this was simple. As long as we continue to see airtime vendors, there will always be space for his products.

This definitely makes sense and maybe the impact of mobile money on airtime vending is overstated. Mobile money services like EcoCash are continually coming up with promotions to encourage airtime purchases through the platform which may suggest that airtime sales through this channel may not be as widespread compared to vending.

In spite of the looks (which is merely a result of zero resources), George is one innovator that has to be celebrated and supported. After dropping out of HIT because of financial challenges, George has dedicated 9 months to building an airtime vending machine literally from the ground up and hopefully soon we wont be speculation what he could achieve with enough resources at his disposal.


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