One Laptop per Child (OLPC) has recently announced an exciting new partnership in East Africa, with newly-ambitious plans to deliver 30 million laptops to primary school children across the region by 2015.
The new partnership between OLPC and the East African Community (EAC) is now looking at ways of raising the large amounts of money required to fund the laptop scheme over the coming five years.
EAC represents the governments of Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda and Burundi.
Massively ambitious program
“This is a very ambitious project for which we will have to partner with various people and institutions to mobilise and fund the resources required to meet our objectives by 2015,” according to Ambassador Juma Mwapachu, secretary general of the EAC.
OLPC CEO Walter De Brouwer explains the group’s philosophy
Following this latest news, TechRadar spoke with OLPC’s European CEO, Walter De Brouwer to find out more about these latest developments to provide some of the world’s poorest communities with affordable laptop technology dedicated to the needs of primary age children.
TechRadar: Can you tell us a little bit more about the new partnership with the East African Community (EAC)?
Walter De Brouwer: We already have a ‘champion’ country in that region, which is Rwanda. President Kagame has committed himself to this. He has really been a visionary president for OLPC. Now, as he leads the East African Community, he has been talking to all of the other countries involved (Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and Burundi) and encouraging them all to have the same level of commitment to the OLPC project.
OLPC XO-3.0 The new tablet PC is currently under development
TR: It is both a highly exciting and massive commitment to say that you want to deliver 30 million laptops in the next five years.
WDB: Yes, well if you are talking about one-to-one computing and you look at the number of kids in the region, then that is the amount that you arrive at. So spacing it over a period of five years is certainly doable. We have done the calculations and if you look at giving one child a laptop – and take into consideration all the necessary server and connectivity costs – then it would come to less than $1 a week over a five-year period.
Rugged tablet De Brouwer expects XO-3.0 to arrive by 2012
So if you spread it out like that – and we have institutions that can help us do this like the EU, like the World Bank and many others – then you are really setting up the ‘intellectual infrastructure’ across the region.
TR: So what is that $1 a week that you mentioned? How do you calculate that?
WDB: Well we calculate that you would need $250 per child to provide them with an XO laptop (inclusive of deployment costs, electricity, servers, connectivity and so on). So if you are budgeting for a $1 a week per child then you are really on target there, because you have to take those things like electrification and connectivity into account.
Touchscreen kid’s PC OLPC is making a rugged new device
These are problems, but they are not insurmountable – as we have already seen in some African countries. There is the willpower, if something happens, they put in electricity. And there are always e-government services that we can adapt for improved connectivity. As long as things move – it is the law of increasing returns.
TR: Practically, in terms of who is going to raise those funds, the EAC has apparently already contacted President Obama to see if the US can provide financial aid. Who else are you working with? Who or what are the other partners that can provide this money needed to make it happen?
WDB: Well apart from the US, we are also asking for help from the EU, where there is a new Commissioner for Development – so we are trying to see what is possible there. Also, we are working with the individual member states of the EU, to see if they can help. If some member states support us, then the EU supports us through their aid programs. We think that combining all of these efforts should find funding for the initiative.
TR: And what are the long-term benefits for the US and the EU to invest in OLPC – to the degree that you require?
WDB: Well, let’s first be clear. It is not investing ‘in’ OLPC, it is an investment in one-to-one computing. It is basically setting up the educational infrastructure. The problem that we have in several countries in Africa is that you really have to think a bit beyond the laptop, beyond the computer itself, in terms of – what do we have to do? There are vast amounts of land where there is no schooling, where there are no teachers, no buildings – how are we going to try to solve this over the course of a couple of years? It requires a completely different approach.
What OLPC thinks is that ‘education’ should be replaced by ‘learning’ – and that by giving each child a laptop and organising this we are also counting on community involvement, that something else should come from this. We want to start these developments, because otherwise nothing will happen.
TR: You’ve mentioned the importance of Rwanda to the development of OLPC in Africa. Why is this?
WDB: Well, Rwanda is very important. It has been our first country in Africa and we have a strong commitment to do well there. Our learning centre in Kigali that is ran by [ex MIT Media Lab professor] David Cavallo and his team. It is an enormous deployment, we are looking at two million kids in Rwanda in five years.
TR: So presuming that you can manage to raise the funds and look to produce that number of XO laptops, do you have the manufacturing capacity to deal with that?
WDB: Manufacturing capacity is a luxury. We now manufacture with Quanta in Shanghai. If the funds come in and we tell them that we are going to need a hell of a lot more computers, Quanta is the biggest laptop producer in the world, so they can find a way.
OLPC original the first XO was dogged by manufacturing issues
TR: I suppose the difference is that because OLPC is an education project and not a laptop company – is that a fair point?
WDB: Yes. And of course this is something that we explain every day. But if you look at it from a provisional point of view, then some people that don’t know us, when they first look at us they think, “oh, these guys are box movers.” But the laptop itself isn’t even that important in our vision.
The OLPC difference “An education initiative, not a laptop company”
TR: Commercial tech and laptop companies such as Intel and Lenovo and Dell all have their own ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ initiatives in developing countries. They seem to favour approaches that bring Microsoft Windows-based PCs and other systems that are used in the west to developing countries. Those companies think that is a more productive strategy…
WDB: Well this is post-colonial thinking. OLPC’s focus is on primary education, from six to 12 years old. Those children are not going to need to do PowerPoint. Of course, a company thinks of a market for its products – so they are more and more thinking in terms of office-training. But of course you cannot treat kids like that.
OLPC screen tech: Pixel Qi is providing sunlight-friendly displays
You know, these kids are full of wonder. You see the amazement in their eyes when they first touch a laptop. And then going on the internet, where the rest of the world is! Seeing them make music on the net. Making little games, where they learn to program in Logo. Sending mails to each other. Teaching them how to put a video on YouTube… these are all very, very important skills for them. This is the future. This is what they should be learning. Not Excel and PowerPoint. This is a learning project, we are not about preparing them for office work.
And also, if you look at those types of office applications, then you have to think about what we all used three years ago – which was completely different. And what did we all use six years ago? It was entirely different!
Kids at play: Primary schools don’t want PowerPoint!
So these kids who are six – when they are 12 they will have six years of computer experience and we just cannot know right now how they will think or what they will do. There is no telling what they will do. But it is not going to be PowerPoint! [laughs]
Nicholas Negroponte [OLPC founder] has always said that “when the mission becomes a market, then we are ready to leave” but we are in countries where right now there is no market, I can assure you. Where we go, I have never seen Intel or Microsoft.
TR: So this latest deal may well be that ‘tipping point’ that you need in order to start delivering millions more laptops to primary school kids in Africa?
WDB: Yes, every idea has its tipping point. And from then onwards, consensus builds, it gets accepted and people that were previously against it soon forget that they were even against it.
I’ve seen it happen over the last two years in South America. But of course it is easier there. You have more English-speakers, better electrification and connectivity.
The future of tablets? OLPC’s next machine looks impressive
TR: Should you secure the funding and provide thirty million machines to East Africa by 2015 – what do you think the effect will be? What will happen by 2015, should you be successful?
WDB: Well we will be responsible for one of the goals of the United Nation’s Millenium Development Goals, to improve education and end poverty by 2015.
Apart from that it will level the playing field, because it cannot be the case that India and China (which all have their problems) are continuing to move up, where African is still continuing to move downwards. Something radical has to happen.
This could be the way to leapfrog that, which is of course the dream of every idealist. But I see these kids, when they first use our laptops in Africa. At first they are clumsy with them, there is no hand-to-eye co-ordination. Then when you come back a couple of months later, they are as good as we are! They are navigating through the software
TR: There is a lot of interest right now in OLPC’s plans for its XO-3.0 tablet PC concept machine, following the recent launch of Apple’s iPad in the US.
WDB: Yes, we are right now at the XO-1.5 which is our latest machine and is a lot faster and which uses a VIA processor and you can have 4GB or 8GB internally. Our next one, the XO-1.75 will use an ARM processor, which will change the power consumption dramatically. And soon we will be able to have the dream, which is to have the complete computer on a chip. Which will finally get the cost of the machines down to a $100 or less and use far less power.
My expectation for the XO-3.0 tablet is that we will change everything.
Changing everything Will OLPC finally get the cash it needs?
TR: So it will have an iPad-style Pixel Qi touchscreen, that lets you flick between an e-ink display and a traditional backlit LCD type display?
WDB: Well, this is something that Nicholas is working on right now in secret. One thing I can say is that ruggedness will have to be built in, which will be a key feature of the XO 3.0 tablet.
See more on OLPCs XO-3.0 concept over at laptop.org/en/laptop/hardware/xo3.shtml.