Can OLPC Strengthen Local African Technology Sectors?

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project has revolutionized the way the computing industry thinks about the developing world. However, I fundamentally disagree with OLPC's business model. Founder Nicholas Negroponte (NN) spoke at the Fletcher School last night, so it gave me occasion to sharpen my thoughts on improving the project.

via curioslee's photostream

OLPC sells laptops in two ways. First, at the head of state level, and second, at the individual level [the 'Give 1 Get 1' (G1G1) program]. Selling mainly through heads of states is a strategy that Breznev would have been proud of. Just as US food assistance ruins the livelihood of farmers in the recipient countries, OLPC ruins the nascent technology industries in these countries. Instead of surpassing these industries, OLPC could help strengthen them.

(i) Hardware Distribution and Maintenance Industry
OLPC should develop a strategy to integrate local hardware distribution and maintenance providers into the value chain. They could identify five such companies in each country, and allow them to compete with one another to distribute the laptops and provide support. While OLPC should be agnostic about where sales happen [nat'l gov, local gov't, individual], local partners would add value by adding local intelligence on political hurdles, logistical issues, ect.

NN is against this because it would add cost. I don't see this as a liability for three reasons: (i) b/c this would likely lead to more volume over time; (ii) it would better reflect the true cost of the product [w/ maintenance, distribution, ect]; and (iii) it would likely still significantly undercut the cost of the competition [OLPC costs $187, and from what I understand, Intel's Classmate is still well over $200].

(ii) Hardware Production Industry
A bolder idea would be to freely license the hardware design and allow any hardware designers to manufacture and sell the product to schools, businesses, distributors or anyone else. Instead of wealth flowing from national treasuries to one factory in Shanghai, other factories, not only in China, but also in Nigeria and Brazil, could produce the product. [HT: OLPC News]

OLPC would continue to be an educational project, but the technology could be re-branded and sold around the developing world. NN's response is again cost. He legitimately points out that he would lose economies of scale. I wonder if over time, however, freely licensing the hardware designs would lead to laptops in the hands of more children.

Last night, NN told the story of when former Nigerian President Obasanjo gushed over the project but failed to make a real commitment before he left office. His successor, President Yar'adua, was not interested in Obasanjo's pet projects, so the deal fell through. This alone shows the problems with head of state approach.

I have yet to see actionable plans for (i) and (ii), but I'm wondering if there aren't some earnest business school students out there already working on them.


Africa Tech Weekly Links | 10.21.08

Its autumn. Via

MobileActive08: An Idea Whose Time Has Come [Balancing Act, 10/19]
"As the old Hollywood saying goes, there are only really 5 stories at MobileActive08. Mobiles are now being used to: send out bulk mailings to key target groups (nurses); mobilise supporters; poll people and gather data; to provide answers to inquiries; to offer information support for activities; and raise funds. The majority of this activity is based on the 160 characters available in SMS."

The Problem With Seed Capital in Africa [White African, 10/20]
If African entrepreneurs can find seed capital, local funders usually want b/w 40-80% equity stake. "I'm interested in seeing some Y-Combinator style venture funding companies AND communities developing around different regions in Africa. Groups that only fund the very early stages of development ($5000 - $15000) for very short periods of time (3-6 months)."

Innovating From Constraint [My Hearts in Accra, 10/17]
Ethan presents 7 rules that help explain how the developing world innovates: (i) innovation comes from constraint; (ii) don't fight culture; (iii) embrace market mechanisms; (iv) use existing platforms; (v) problems are not always obvious from afar; (vi) what you have matters more than what you lack; (vii) infrastructure begets infrastructure.

Banking Crisis Will Be Felt in Africa [CDG Blog, 10/13] "After the Nordic crisis of 1991, Norway's foreign aid fell 10%, Sweden's 17%, and Finland's 62%--from peak to trough after adjusting for inflation."

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head of the charles regatta

via cperfetti's photostream

Back in Boston, the crispness of the air and the changing leaves is perfect.


Where I Belong

On the last day of exams last spring, I flew with a buddy and my bike to Amsterdam. With no map or place to stay, we biked south to France. In Paris, we did a day trip by bike to the Loire Valley, and decided to picnic on this farm.


BarCamp Africa

My wrap-up on BarCamp Africa, post on the official Google Africa Blog:

Over 100 technologists and social entrepreneurs descended on our Mountain View campus last Saturday, October 11th, for BarCampAfrica, an event designed to help strengthen Silicon Valley's ties to our continent. The event contributed to the 'Africa: Open for Business' narrative that gained prominence at TEDGlobal and at this year's BarCamps in Nairobi, Kampala, Mauritius, Madagascar and Johannesburg.

As participants set the agenda for the day, a clear consensus emerged that digital technology has a major role to play in addressing Africa's interconnected business and social challenges. Throughout the day, discussions of laptop distribution models were followed by conversations on the state of democracy on the continent, and talk of the future of mobile payments was followed by insights on mobile solutions for human rights monitoring.

Googlers Matthew Stepka and Andrew McLaughlin jointly opened the event and set the tone for the day. They discussed the challenges and opportunities of Google's work in Africa, and how both policymakers and philanthropists can pave the way for business leaders to succeed. A major theme on the morning panel was the return of centers of excellence to the African continent. Several panelists touched on the encouraging trend of "Re-aspora": Africans returning to their home countries. Others explored the model of the African Leadership Academy, a pan-African university dedicated to developing the next generation of African leaders.


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Africa Tech Monday Links 10.13.08

Barcamp Africa Panel: Technology and Education
Watch the video of one of the hottest panels at BarCamp Africa (hosted this weekend at Google Mountain View), featuring Guy Kawasaki (Garage Tech Ventures, Entrepreneur Magazine), David Kobia (Ushahidi), Martin Fisher (KickStart), and Jon Gosier (Appfrica).

Kelele- The African Bloggers Conference [White African, 10/12]
One of the announcements at Barcamp Africa was Kelele- The African Bloggers Conference, set to take place in Nairobi on August 13-16.

Africa: Communications Technologies Transform Elections [IHT, 10/1]
Wonderful aggregation of incidents where technology played a role in keeping African leaders accountable.

Reframing Brand Africa (Tech) [White African, 10/6]
'If it works in Africa, it will work everywhere.' Thats why Africa exports technology to the world. Success stories include Fring, Ubuntu, FrontlineSMS, Ushahidu, Softtribe and Qik.

Opportunity Knocks [Economist, 10/9]
"Despite the litany of problems, the 48 countries of sub-Saharan Africa are, by several measures, enjoying a period of unparalleled economic success. And despite the turmoil in the world's financial markets, international investors still think they can make money there."

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Palo Alto Running

'The Dish-Stanford', via Calvin Lee's photostream

Sunday morning I ran with an old friend. I hadn't run with him since, after a long run through East Jerusalem , he passed out from dehydration during a shabbat service. Today was no such case, as he took me to town on the rolling hills of Stanford's Dish. A happy diversion from a blurry few weeks on both coasts. Overnight flight back to Boston tonight, and back to class in the morning.


barcamp africa

Just watched the sunrise at Google Mountain View before the start BarCamp Africa. Its always fun to be at an event like this in so many roles. Here are some of them.

scholar- writing my thesis (PhD, book?) on the dense confluence of technical skill, policy and other contingencies that allow technology sectors to explore in emerging markets. How can Nairobi become the next Bangalore, Tel Aviv or Hong Kong? How has IT changed the nature of economic growth such that these recent models are less relevant.

google public policy team member- one thing I learned this summer is the best way to influence governments to take up better technology policies is to know the best entrepreneurs on the ground, who can help guide the process.

entrepreneur- for some time now, I've been interested in getting involved on the financing and management side of a nascent tech venture. I'm working with a group of international business students in Boston to find the right venture to support [not connected w/ Google]. Maybe I'll find it today.

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A New Center Emerges

Had a great opportunity to train down to Princeton last Thursday to give a Thursday lunch talk at the new Center for Information Technology Policy (CITP). CITP is a brand new research center with expertise at the overlap between policy (Woodrow Wilson School) and engineering (Computer Science Department). I love this approach, because I've been increasingly cognizant of the effect that tech entrepreneurs in developing countries are having on public policy.

The talk gave me a chance to reflect on two of the big projects I've been working over the last year, and what is to come (more soon on that scheming). The abstract:

How can policy makers in developing countries craft information technology policies that will drive economic growth? How do mobile phones and the Internet change how citizens participate in democracy and the political process? While a rich and varied discourse has emerged around each of these questions, these discussions has largely excluded Africa, perhaps due to a paucity of evidence. However, this trend is changing as Africa becomes one of the world’s fastest growing markets for information technology. Through the lens of two of my recent research papers, I will discuss the promise the Internet holds for economic and political development in Africa.

Critical Elements of an African Internet Economy (forthcoming), co-authored with Google’s Head of Global Public Policy Andrew McLaughlin, presents public policy components for African governments that recognize that bandwidth is a fundamental input into the information economy. While African governments are in very different stages of developing their Internet economies, each must address a common set of policy issues including fiber infrastructure, spectrum, competition and local content.

The Role of Digital Technology in Kenya’s 2007-08 Presidential Election Crisis, part of Harvard’s Berkman Center Internet and Democracy Case Study Series, illustrates how digital technologies were a catalyst to both predatory behavior, such as ethnic-based mob violence, and civic behavior, such as citizen journalism and human rights campaigns during the recent violence in Kenya. While this paper is a first cut at history, it is also an attempt to bring the African experience into the sociological and political science discourse on the Internet’s effect on democracy.

Joshua Goldstein is a masters candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, studying development economics and information technology policy with a regional focus on sub-Saharan Africa. He currently conducts research with Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and Google Inc. Before attending the Fletcher School, he worked for USAID in Uganda. Notably, he recently published Embracing ‘Open Access’ in East Africa: A Common Internet Infrastructure Policy Agenda for Human Security and Economic Development” in Princeton’s Journal of Public and International Affairs and Harvard’s Berkman Center Working Paper Series. He blogs at In An African Minute.

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Mobile Phones, the Internet and Kenya's 2007-08 Presidential Election Crisis

Yesterday, Harvard's Berkman Center published a case study I co-authored with Kenyan technologist and activist Juliana Rotich. The case, entitled "The Role of Digital Technology in Kenya's 2007-08 Presidential Election Crisis," is part of Harvard's Berkman Center Working Paper Series.


Written largely through the lens of rich nations, scholars have developed theories about how digital technology affects democracy. However, largely due to a paucity of evidence, these theories have excluded the experience of Sub-Saharan Africa, where meaningful access to digital tools is only beginning to emerge, but where the struggles between failed state and functioning democracy are profound. Using the lens of the 2007-2008 Kenyan Presidential Election Crisis, this case study illustrates how digitally networked technologies, specifically mobile phones and the Internet, were a catalyst to both predatory behavior such as ethnic-based mob violence and to civic behaviors such as citizen journalism and human rights campaigns. The paper concludes with the notion that while digital tools can help promote transparency and keep perpetrators from facing impunity, they can also increase the ease of promoting hate speech and ethnic divisions.