Google, MIT support $100 laptop for the world’s poorest children
Rhett Butler, mongabay.com
October 6, 2005
Google, AMD, Brightstar, News Corporation, and Red Hat have signed on to MIT’s low-cost laptop initiative which aims to deliver a fully functional $100 machine to the developing world.
MIT Media Lab, taking a page out of a revolutionary business book by C.K. Prahalad, is developing a Linux-based, full-color, full-screen laptop that will use innovative power sources — including batteries or hand crank — and will be able to do most everything that a standard laptop can do except store large amounts of data. According to MIT, these rugged laptops will be WiFi- and cell phone-enabled, and have USB ports, a 500MHz processor, and 1 gigabyte of storage capacity using flash memory instead of a hard disk.
The $100 laptop is the brainchild of Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the MIT Media Lab, who announced the concept at the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland in January 2005. Negroponte plans to display the first prototype in November at a UN summit, but already five countries—China, Brazil, Egypt, Thailand and South Africa—have said they will buy over 1 million units each. Production is due to start in late 2006 with an objective of building 100 million to 200 million units by 2008.
How is it possible to get the cost so low?
MIT will work with the not-for-profit company One Laptop per Child (OLPC) to distribute laptops through those ministries of education willing to adopt a policy of “One Laptop per Child.” MIT believes that laptops “are a wonderful way for all children to ‘learn learning’ through independent interaction and exploration,” while development experts believe the laptop program could generate long-term economic benefits for some of the world’s poorest people.
The $100 laptop initiative follows in the spirit of C.K. Prahalad’s The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits, a book that looks at the world’s masses as potential customers instead of victims of poverty. In his book, Prahalad argues that by regarding the 80% of humanity living on less than $2 a day — whom he terms “the bottom of the pyramid” — as potential customers, businesses and the poor will be better off. Prahalad suggests that the private sector may do a better job eradicating poverty, building dignity and respect, encouraging entrepreneurship, and reducing dependency than handouts under traditional aid programs. Prahalad writes,
For more than 50 years, the World Bank, donor nations, various aid agencies, national governments, and lately, civil society organizations have all fought the good fight but have not eradicated poverty … If we stop thinking of the poor as victims or as a burden and start recognizing them as resilient and creative entrepreneurs and value-conscious consumers, a whole new world of opportunity will open up. Four billion poor can be the engine of the next round of global trade and prosperity … [and] a source of innovations.
As it exists today, the poor are essentially an under-served market. Bringing them the products and services that they demand will not only be worthwhile to the companies providing these products and services, but will give the poor recognition that they lacked as a part of “the masses;” respect in the form of the dignity of attention and choices previously reserved for the middle-class and rich; and fair treatment in being freed from having to pay the “poverty penalty” whereby the poor have to pay a premium for the same products and services offered to the rich. Prahalad argues that “building self-esteem and entrepreneurial drive at the [bottom of the pyramid] is probably the most enduring contribution that the private sector can make” to poverty alleviation. Ignoring the poor does not help. Corporations and policy makers alike need to listen and respond to their needs instead of making assumptions about how they feel and what they require.
Reaching the poor is going to require more than just offering them “an existing portfolio of products and services,” writes Prahalad. “Because these product portfolios have been priced and developed for Western markets, they are often out of reach for potential customers in [bottom of the pyramid] markets. More important, the feature-function set has often been inappropriate.” Multi-national corporations are going to have to thoroughly re-engineer products to reflect both the very different needs of poor consumers and economics of the market — small unit packages, low margins, and high volume. Innovation in product development will be key and may reverse the flow of concepts, ideas, and methods to improve existing products offered in developed markets. The use of existing western products and methods will simply not cut it.
With this philosophy in mind, MIT has developed just such an innovative product that can meet the needs of the world’s poor and offers the potential to help them escape “the bottom of the pyramid.”
About the MIT initiative
The three principals of the $100 laptop project are faculty members at the Media Lab: Nicholas Negroponte, Joe Jacobson, and Seymour Papert. Additional researchers include: Mike Bove, Mary Lou Jepsen, Alan Kay, Tod Machover, Mitchel Resnick, and Ted Selker. More information is available at the MIT Media Lab.
A look at the history of low cost technology initiatives
Cell phones may help “save” Africa – July 11, 2005
For all the talk about “making poverty history” through aid and debt relief at the G8 meeting in Scotland and among aging rock stars at Live8 concerts, perhaps the best tool for poverty alleviation on the continent is the mobile phone. Yes, that ubiquitous handheld device has done wonders for the poor around the world. Cell phones not only offer opportunity through voice services but emerging technologies that bring Internet access to phones, bypassing the need for a computer for connecting to the World Wide Web.
This past Saturday millions of people watched the anti-poverty “Live 8” concerts held in London, Tokyo, Johannesburg, Paris, Rome, Berlin, Moscow, Philadelphia and Barrie, Canada. Live 8 coincides with tomorrow’s G8 summit of world leaders and aims to raise awareness of the need for aid, debt relief and fairer trade for Africa. While the cancellation of debt and delivery of aid to Africa is a noble and needed cause for a desparately poor continent, policy makers will need to ensure that funds are spent wisely to maximize the benefits for the largest number of Africans. In the past, aid to the developing world has met mixed reviews. Some of the largest recipients of aid are still some of the world’s poorest countries. What’s going on here? Have aid agencies just been throwing money into a hole?
Mobilizing seniors to fight poverty in Africa – September 9, 2005
For all the hype around sending billions of dollars in aid to Africa, it is important to remember that money must be spent wisely. Some of the largest recipients of aid in the past are still some of the world’s poorest countries thanks to corrupt regimes that consumed massive amounts of aid. Direct aid has not only bred corruption and the misallocation of resources away from those who need it most, but it has also fostered dependency and skewed the perceived value of goods and services. One program that could have potential for real poverty alleviation in Africa is a “Gray Corps” concept which would take advantage of the experience and expertise of aging Americans (aged 65 and older), a segment of the population that is expected to grow from approximately 35 million in 2000 to an estimated 71 million in 2030. This group could be key to addressing a number of looming social issues both here in the United States and abroad. The GrayCrops concept should be explored at the upcoming White House Conference on Aging, a meeting that occurs only once a decade and is meeting this year in Washington on December 11-14.
Developing sustainable business models that address the needs of the world’s poor – 25-May-2005
People involved with international development and poverty alleviation programs are increasingly looking toward the private sector for inspiration and assistance. Many believe that involving business in such efforts will not only bring wealth, respect, dignity, and improved education and health to the world’s poor but also prove to be a profitable business strategy.
Secondary school students from Nigeria competing against Poland? Russia versus Ghana? US versus Tajikistan? South Africa versus China? Ukraine versus the Philippines? Yes, but this is not a soccer match-it’s the “SAGE World Cup.” Rather than kicking a ball through a goal, these Students for the Advancement of Global Entrepreneurship (SAGE) will explain how they have completed entrepreneurship projects and social ventures for the betterment of their communities. The best team will be crowned “SAGE World Cup” champion on 11-14 August in San Francisco. Gray’s International College from Kaduna State will represent Nigeria in this unique program that combines local collaboration with global competition.
This article used information and quotes from the MIT Media Lab, mongabay.com, and The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits.