Alternative Models for OLPC?


At his Africa 3.0 panel at this year’s South By South West Project Diaspora’s Teddy Ruge critiqued the role the One Laptop Per Child Project has played in developing countries.

A few excerpts of Teddy’s main points:

I applaud OLPC’s attempt to have the governments pay for the laptops and distribute them to the children, but I do not see this going very far beyond a few progressive governments like Kagame’s Rwanda. If the government does not acknowledge and address its poor education system, and put massive weight behind making sure that the cornerstones of their country’s education system are overhauled to be inline with 21st century educational best practices, then OLPC is dead in the water.

As of 2009, there were approximately 450 million phone subscriptions across Africa. A few countries on the continent have an estimated 90% rate of penetration. To many, this is the first introduction to a piece of technology, the first introduction to a computing device, and if you count SMS and MMS services, the first introduction to electronic communication.

My third point addresses something that is dear to me. I am not sure how many people will agree with me so mileage may vary depending on your cultural experiences. As I said above, the mobile phone goes about educating and enriching lives in rhythm with Africa’s variety of cultural norms. Outside forces empowering children with their very own laptop (however well-meaning the altruistic gesture might be), puts a majority of children at odds with their place in the family structure. In some cultures, children have their place in the social order, with responsibilities to perform accordingly—be it washing dishes, collecting water and firewood, or cooking. In this structure, children learn social responsibilities to one another and how family functions. They learn things you can’t teach in a classroom.

Throwing something as complex as a laptop into the ownership of a child disrupts this social knowledge transfer mechanism.

I too have had a handful of conversations with the staff from OLPC and presented the idea of locally manufacturing parts or assembling entire machines in-country, and rather than only distributing through governments at the disruptive cost of ‘free’, selling to governments at a premium and selling to small private sector companies at cost. My complaint echoing Teddy’s that there need to be local stake holders who AREN’T just governments. This model has a double bottom line, supporting local business while also offering the same immense social benefit that Nicholas Negroponte originally aimed for.

Of course OLPC’s staff disagree with these counterpoints from on many levels. But I would like to suggest two alternatives to their operation:

Form Factor

For one I don’t like the OLPC Interface. I think as a netbook it’s pretty cool, but I have one and using it for anything other than playing is a nightmare. Which makes it great for kids, but why should adults be forced to come down a child’s level to learn how to use computers? Furthermore, why are we trying to think for kids who often devour tech to the point where we end up learning from them? Why limit them?

Teddy writes…

The mobile phone in Africa does something that the OLPC will never do, it integrates itself into the rhythm of life in Africa. Its use flows with the pace of life: it augments ones life experience when it needs to; it plays rescuer when the need arises, it creates incomes where none were possible previously; it makes the world smaller where previously distances were vast. Most importantly, it educates everyone. Try doing that with an XO.

It reminds of the debate about Play Pump, which was an ambitious project to use children playing on merry-go-rounds to pump water. It was considered great when children used it, but usually more consistent use was observed by mothers or elder sisters of the community who’s role it is traditionally to get water. This helped in that they didn’t have to do it by rope, but might be considered by some to be degrading for an adult female to have to spin a merry-go-round to get water for her family while the whole village stands around watching. It also didn’t really address the problem of where the water holes were (usually a great distance from villages). That was essentially the debate there, anyway.

With the XO, I think there should be more than one model. After all one size does not fit all, anywhere in the world. A relatively new device who’s design I do like is the Nokia N900.

It’s a computer in the form of a phone. Other than price, it’s a brilliant product almost screaming Africa’s name. Why? Because it allows for more than just the consumption of content. It supports projectors, larger monitors and keyboards for institutions that require more than just a small screen. It also looks professional, but could be designed in ways that are more attractive to kids. It offers real command-line access so if a teacher wanted, they could use it to learn or teach programming skills. Sugar has this but at least in the XO-1 it was fairly clunky. I do think Sugar is a great lightweight OS, I just think it should be deployed on a different device.

Africa doesn’t default to the mobile device because they want to, they do it because it’s useful for them. Embrace that. Make something that will allow the young computer geeks of tomorrow to begin exploring today…before they get to school, on a device that they can use for more than just their school work.

Most people will debate the price-point. My answer is if OLPC disrupted the market once, they can do it again. I don’t know the cost of the components of the N900 but I bet a slightly different design, a less expensive chip, and cheaper materials would cut it at least in half.

Local Stake Holding & Manufacturing

I don’t like top-down solutions. As someone who lives in a developing country, I often avoid the government as do many of the people around me. On one hand it IS the government’s problem to tackle, unfortunately it’s not ONLY the government’s problem to tackle and sometimes a local private sector company can be more transparent and more effect at deploying solutions.

Where that is the case, I suggest making devices that at least in some way, engage some local companies. That could be manufacturing, assembly, branding or whatever. Hire local groups (not necessarily local NGOs or nonprofits) to participate in this process. Now you’re supporting local innovation and local business, two things that are too often overlooked in development. If free is still the aim, do Free in a way that involves local constituents.

It also supports the idea of pan-African trade which over time will decrease the costs of distributing items in Africa in general. How? Because local stake holders will want to sell products, governments will want to see their countries prosper (if only because it gives them more power) and it offers incentive for everyone to improve internal infrastructure.

For an example of how this might work with netbooks, check out Gou Bang (Go Bang!) a company in China that offers netbooks partial assembled and fully manufactured, then they ship you the 75% complete product for completion. And the base cost? $200 per unit. I bet that goes down when you buy in bulk.

I can think of many ways both of these models could work in African countries but these are just ideas, some of them I’ve been working on at Appfrica for some time now. I’ll let others weigh in with their experiences in reality.

More from Teddy Ruge and Project Diaspora…

AustinLifestyles SXSW 2009 Interview - Teddy Ruge - More bloopers are a click away

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About the author: Jonathan Gosier is a UI designer, software developer and writer. He currently lives in Kampala, Uganda where he incubates and invests in East African entrepreneurs as the CEO of Appfrica Labs. He's also a TED Fellow.
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