The (Small, Slow and Sufficient) $99 “Africa” Laptop

Just in time for Christmas, a new low-cost, low-power netbook is hitting the scenes that actually retails for only $99. Cherrypal, the company behind it, has dubbed it “Africa”, as they’re focusing the little computer on developing countries. As the company states, this is a “no thrills” laptop – it’s basic and won’t be attractive for most of the tech people reading this blog for their own heavy use.

The $99 Africa netbook

“At just $99, the new 7” Cherrypal Africa is one of the best buys in the world of electronics. Created with developing countries in mind, the Africa is our latest step toward closing the “digital divide”, and we’re extremely proud of this achievement. Whether you live in Ghana or Texas, the Cherrypal Africa is right for you! “

[Note the Texas bit? Yes, I thought that was funny too…]

The computer runs on a 400 MHz processor and features 256 MB RAM, 2 GB flash memory, Ethernet, Wi-Fi, two USB ports and can run either Linux or Windows CE operating systems. It has only a 7″ screen as well, so it’s not a monster that you’re going to be able to do a lot of heavy work on.

There’s always room for low-cost, yet usable, computers in Africa. I’m happy to see this operating as a real business, available to everyone.

The problem is distribution

It’s easy enough to buy one online if you’re from the US, but how does an unconnected, no-credit card (or PayPal) owning African buy one? Let’s be honest, here we need a store that you can walk into, cash in hand, and walk out with a computer. There is no payment mechanism that works beyond in-country mechanisms and delivery to any African nation will double the price of an individual “Africa” laptop.

What I’m trying to determine is the distribution model for getting these to actually be for sale in Africa for $99. Is it even possible?

UPDATE:
I just got in touch with Max Seybold, the founder of Cherrypal, saying the following:

“We can ship to Kenya for the same cost too, let us know.

We are looking into established distributors/resellers but also encourage schools and other organizations to sign up as distribution channel. This would be a win-win situation, since this organizations are in dire need to generate additional income and we could teach them how to promote and distribute the products. It’s a learning experience for all of us but we are willing to try unconventional approaches in order to help the cause.”

Any takers? I’d be interested, but not by myself.

How Aid and Government are Failing Higher Ed in Liberia

Professors Robert and Bropleh

Today I stopped by the University of Liberia, which is situated right between (and across the street from) the massive UN Mission to Liberia (UNMIL) building and the equally large Liberian capital building. I had the chance to sit down with Professors Bropleh, the Associate Dean of Engineering, and Professor Damalo Robert, the Director of Computer Information Systems.

It turns out there is no computer science program offered at all. I asked if they knew of any student that was a programmer, if there were any groups that did some type of hacking on their own. Nothing. Below is the sorry story of this saga.

The computer science center story

DSC_0403

On April 27, 2007 the president opened the new “Center for information and communication technology” at the University of Liberia. It has 150 computers, a VSAT connection and a video conferencing machine. Sounds good!

That operation was shut down 6 months ago.

The power and the building are paid for by the university, but the nice internet connection cost about $5000 per month and no one was paying the bill. There is some muddy story involving Socketworks Global’s digital bridge project and the International Finance Corporation (IFC), where Socketworks put in a $100k+ expecting to be reimbursed by the IFC, only to have it not happen.

“In post-conflict Liberia, where students cannot absorb a fee increase for education, SocketWorks is self-funding the initial investment and seeking support from the World Bank to subsidize the student subscription fees. This is the first time SocketWorks is changing its business model to accommodate donor subsidies.”

What we’re left with is a padlocked door to a 150 working computers, with a dormant VSAT connection sitting unused in the middle of the demographic that could do the most with it. The very same demographic that will be called upon to lead the next generation of government and business in Liberia.

Aid money and Liberia’s higher education

Since the war ended in 2003, there has been well over a billion dollars of AID money pumped into this country. It appears as if the young children are more important than the older youth, as almost all education money is funneled to primary schools. On average, out of an engineering student population of 500 students, only 30 graduate. There is a whole generation missing out on real higher education opportunities.

The University of Liberia is an eyesore – a mess of buildings falling apart and crumbling before your eyes. That might be okay though, as the Chinese have built a brand new university complex 30 miles out of town, which is supposed to go into use next year. Maybe they have other plans for this land now, but in the interim, it just seems an embarrassment to the system – both government and aid organizations.

What next?

It seems such a shame to have the futures of this current generation of “could be” programmers and developers held hostage by a system not of their making. Where the very purpose is to be educated in areas that will help the country exponentially in the years ahead. It makes you wonder…

We see the big tech foundations dumping their money into all kinds of projects. With a running cost of under $100k per year, why doesn’t some white knight from a big tech company put their money here? Surely this is a place and a project worth that much. That number equates to an accounting error for most of them anyway.

I find myself torn between excitement of the potential that these 150 computers represent and the disappointment of the current muck up.

Negroponte on the New (lowercase): olpc

Nicholas Negroponte comes up on stage at TED and tells us that, due to the OLPC, there’s a whole new product line: Netbooks. However, they copied all the wrong things. Next thing you know there are a couple being thrown around the stage, and he’s asking us how well a netbook would stand up to that, or being submerged in water, or being sent to Africa…

My question is about how well an OLPC works when you just open it up…? :)

“Commercial markets will do anything they can to stop you, even when you’re non-profit, even if you’re a humanitarian organization.”

Now we want to build something that everybody copies. Go from the OLPC to the olpc (lowercase). That’s what’s going to happen over the next 3 years. Open source hardware: where you publish all the specs and all the designs so that anyone can copy it.

In a side conversation with Ethan Zuckerman here, this is what they should have done 3 years ago, and it would have saved them a lot of heartache.

Cameron Sinclair adds via Twitter, “OLPC to be open sourced. email nn@MIT.edu with ideas about olpc. I suggest adding SketchUp and making it o.l.p.innovator”