Nigeria buys into US$100 laptop concept

The One Laptop per Child initiative is starting to take off in Africa.

The One Laptop per Child (OLPC) initiative for the developing world, the brainchild of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab co-founder Nicholas Negroponte, is gaining ground in Africa, with Nigeria announcing the acquisition of one million laptops.

The OLPC, however, has a competitor: a consortium led by Microsoft and Intel.

The OLPC laptops were initially touted as being priced at US$100, though OLPC participants now say the price may fluctuate. In any case, they will be the cheapest ever sold in Africa, and several African countries are going for the idea.

Nigeria Communication Commission Executive Vice Chairman Ernest Ndukwe said Nigeria has already committed to ordering one million machines. Egypt has said it is almost ready to commit itself to buying the laptops but has not said how many it is prepared to order. Zambian officials say negotiations to buy the machines are progressing well and that the country may soon announce the number of machines the country intends to order.

"This is the only opportunity for us in Zambia and all the African countries to equip schools with computers because the laptops are reasonably priced," said Zambia's communication and transport minister, Abel Chambeshi.

The laptops will have a 500MHz processor and 128M bytes of DRAM, with 500M bytes of flash memory. The laptops will also have wireless broadband that, among other things, allows them to work as a mesh network with each laptop being able to talk to its nearest neighbors, creating an ad hoc local area network.

The laptops will only be sold to governments and issued to schools, according to Negroponte. Because many schools in Africa don't have electricity, the laptops will use built-in hand cranks for energy.

The laptops are expected to be ready for shipment between the last quarter of this year and the first quarter of next year.

Chambeshi said he was not aware that recently OLPC participants have said that the machines may end up costing US$135. But even at US$135, he said, "the machines [are] still reasonably cheap, for any African government to buy."

The companies that are participating in the OLPC project include Google, Nortel Networks, eBay, Advanced Micro Device and News with Quanta Computer of Taiwan having been chosen as the original design manufacturer for the laptops.

However, there is a battle going on over the African market between the OLPC project and various consortiums involving Microsoft, Intel, Hewlett-Packard, Oracle and Cisco Systems.

A few months after the announcement of OLPC project, Intel announced it was manufacturing US$400 machines, dubbed Eduwise, for Africa and other developing nations. And Microsoft, among other companies, has entered into a partnership with the eAfrica Commission, under the aegis of New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD). NEPAD was founded by the Organization of African Unity. One of NEPAD's goals is to computerize schools in Africa.

The Microsoft consortium is pushing to supply as many computers as possible to schools across Africa but the consortium's marketing strategy is somewhat different from the one being used by OLPC. The consortium is marketing its computers through the eAfrica commission while OLPC directly negotiates with governments who own the schools and want them computerized.

The Microsoft consortium has already supplied computers to Uganda and South Africa.

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