Nigeria: Much scepticism about OPLC project

Computing

One Lap Top Per Child Project has been putting a brave face on the pull-out of Intel from its project. However, the tide of scepticism is growing about the project as it seems to have failed to gain traction in terms of sales to developing countries that must be the acid test of its success. The analysis below a journalist from Nigeria’s This Day summarises many of the reasons – both rational and irrational – that the project will find hard to overcome.

With the expectations built around the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project initiated by Nicholas Negroponte and the recent hiccups/challenges it faces following the pull out of Intel, Efem Nkanga of This Day assesses the viability of the project for Nigeria and other developing countries

If you embark on a tour of public schools in Nigeria, your senses will be assaulted by the level of decay and rot in the schools. Many places of learning in the country today have become obsolete centres with no chairs and tables for the children to sit, the buildings are dilapidated and it is not uncommon to see children in some parts of the country taking lessons under trees and in some other places they take their own chairs to school.

All these in a major oil producing country in the world, a giant of Africa ,with over 140,000,000 million people and still counting, a country that cannot be described as poor, a country blessed with enviable natural resources, a country referred to by some as the headquarters of the Almighty, filled with highly religious people, yet engulfed by decay, corruption and lawlessness.

This is why when Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of the "One laptop per child" visited Nigeria to solicit for the participation and partnership of the Nigerian government in the project sometime last year, many stakeholders wondered where the initiative that would have cost the Nigerian government over US$200 million would lead to. The project would have made laptops available to about one million Nigerian children. But since that visit was broadcast with Negroponte shaking the hands of President Obasanjo in a seemingly conclusive way with assurances on both sides for money and laptops to change hands, nothing has come out of the deal. Now the recent announcement by Intel's rival body that had joined the OLPC project after initially criticising Negroponte has in recent times not only raised doubts about the initiative but called to question the viability of the project for Nigeria.

Stakeholders see the action of Intel, which has its own rival laptop for children called the classmate PC as a pointer showing that the OLPC project might after all be a dream that cannot fly. Intel joined the OLPC board which began production of the laptops in China less than six months ago in a collaborative effort that will make millions of the laptop available in some developing countries. The questions begging for answers at the moment is why did Intel really pull out? While some are of the view that Intel pulled out after getting information about the inner workings of the project team, others are of the view that Intel might have stumbled on a managerial and technical error within the OLPC project management team that showed that the project was going no where soon or a clash of interest that will negatively affect Intel's own initiative could not be resolved. Though Intel's boss came out a few days ago to clarify that Intel pulled out because the OLPC team wanted it to stop the promotion of its own Classmate PCs, many are still nonplussed and not sure of what really went wrong.

What effects will the pull out have for Nigeria, given the fact that the country had shown interest in the project in 2006? Stakeholders in the information technology sector have diverse opinions as to the viability of the project for Nigeria. In the first place, because of the rot in the education system in the country in recent years, a lot of people are of the opinion that there are other critical areas begging for attention in the sector that the US$200 million could solve. The laptop in question, a green and white coloured XO machine designed specifically for children has a hand crank that the children can pull when it runs down. It's a rugged laptop said to have been built with the harsh conditions in developing countries in mind. The laptops initially expected to cost only $100 though now costs $188 due to increased production cost and would no doubt translate to double costs that would be borne by the beneficiaries.

Nigeria's interest in the initiative raised questions in some quarters given the fact that in most public schools, amenities are totally lacking and most students don't even have chairs to sit on. They don't have books, and other basic ingredients that make learning conducive and attractive, so how can a laptop make a difference when the main substances required to make the right pudding is not there.

Dr Igwe Aja-Nwachuku, Nigeria's Minister of Education is one of the many Nigerians who are skeptical of the project. He once remarked that the education ministry was more interested in laying a solid foundation for quality, efficient, accessible, and affordable education and wondered "What is the sense of introducing One Laptop per Child when children don't have seats to sit down and learn; when they don't have uniforms to go to school in, where they don't have facilities?"

Many Nigerians would have been more receptive and tolerant of the one laptop per child initiative if the project promoters were offering these laptops free to Nigerian children. Then and only then will people really believe that they are really out to better the lot of the children, but a situation where you seemingly give with one hand and take back with the other is not acceptable to a people already struggling with several challenges that impede their development.

Some also see the laptops as toys that would not stand the test of time. Children are notorious for using their toys for a short while and discarding them and what happens when it gets broken or malfunctions, where do they take it for repairs and who pays for the repairs?

Going forward, the reality is that such an initiative for now is not the solution to the educational quagmire that the nation is presently battling. Other things that are more pressing in the sector should be tackled first before such funds is wasted on a wide goose chase leading nowhere and ultimately benefiting no one, certainly not the Nigerian child.

This Day