Mali’s school students prepare themselves for the arrival of OPLC’s laptops

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As four years have passed since the launch of One Laptop Per Child by Nicolas Negroponte, it’s perhaps a good time to take stock of what the project has achieved, particularly in Africa. Isabelle Gross spoke this week to Nathalie Avidar, whose responsible for OPLC’s country co-ordination for OPLC Europe, based in Belgium.

With 1.5 million OLPC laptops deployed across the world and the objective of reaching 2 million by 2010, the dream of offering children from emerging countries the opportunity to get involved in ICT is beginning to be realised. According to Nathalie Avidar, the first step in the process of deployment is to get the « buy-in » of Governments, particularly the Ministry of Education. At this moment, OPLC has agreements with the Governments of Rwanda, Mali, Burundi, Tanzania, Swaziland, DRC, Côte d’Ivoire, Morocco and Mozambique. This is a group of countries that is both geographically and economically very varied.

The second step is to find finance and a site for a local pilot to distribute 10,000-12,000 OPLC laptops. In Mali the pilot project stage is due to start this December with primary school students in Timbuctu and its surrounding region. The initial pilot of 10,000 laptops has been financed by a Swiss international foundation, according to Avidar. The initial order for a pilot of this kind with between 10,000-12,000 laptops costs between US$2-2.4 million. This sum covers the machines and the training of all the relevant personnel and also includes after service. However, for 1% of the purchase price, OPLC will offer either repair or replacement of machines in event of major failures.

In Rwanda which was one of the first countries to sign up to OPLC, there are currently 150,000 laptops in the country. This represents a penetration level in the order of 5%. At this rate, it would only take 5-6 years to reach saturation point. As in Mali, the project has been rolled out in phases. The capital Kigali was the site for the pilot programme and rather than wait for an evaluation phase and supplementary finance, the Government has pressed straight on to further roll-out.

According to Avidar, the Rwandan experience has demonstrated that the OPLC laptop is important as an educational tool for course work. Also when students finish at school, they take the laptop home and use it and also teach members of their family how it works.

Because of its robustness, its low power consumption and ability to access the Internet, the laptop has 150 different applications that can among other things help children to read, write and count. The applications are based on the theory of constructivism : the child does not need to know how to read in order to operate the machine as its operations are based on icons, much as also its learning programmes are.

With a laptop targeted at children between the ages of 6-12 years in primary schools in emerging markets (representing several hundred million students), OPLC aims to put « bread on the plate » in the coming years. The objectives of the project are noble but it still needs to ensure that the price of the OPLC laptop remains competitive and is not an obstacle to use.

When the project was launched, the opening hype was of a laptop for US$100 . The project’s founder Negroponte must now be wondering whether the considerable media attention this attracted was worth the subsequent disappointment. Today the OPLC laptop costs US$180 (including delivery and training) while the newer generation of « netbooks » (which the project in part spurred on) cost US$300-400. However, it’s possible to get an Asus Eee PC 701 from Amazon for US$250. And the cost differential will keep on closing.

In August this year, an article published on the site Liliputing ((

) announced the arrival of the Lanyu LY-EB01 eBook, a netbook « made in China » for less than US$100 but unfortunately only available in China. But when African Governments look at moving from « agreements in principle » to OPLC deployments in their primary schools, price weigh in their final decision-making if the purchases are funded by international donors.