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100$ laptop? Good or Bad?


VaKo
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http://laptop.media.mit.edu/ bit of background

So, my girlfriends off to Africa in a few weeks to do some community work for university. She hadn't heard of the 100$ laptop idea, so I showed her the site and the Slashdot posts. She's going to ask some questions when she gets there, and talk to there target market demographic, and see what they actually think of the idea.

Now my position is, it’s a waste of money. Along the lines of Bibles. And donated vehicles* that use engines that are to complex to fix using the tools they have. If you read the Digg and /. Comments they mostly seem to focus on the idea of using Linux in a developing world. Which is a noble goal, but kinda worthless.

I'm of the mind that to help, we should build infrastructure (roads, water and power etc), and provide training to people who can then teach others in turn. Basic health care is also a must; both threw training and material assistance (i.e. free drugs, bandages, needles).

While a laptop could help here, I see that as unlikely without the basic infrastructure and societal changes needed to make use of computers. Does a farmer need a computer to grow more grain? Does a midwife need a computer in a difficult child birth?

So my alternative idea is this: We develop a super-rugged (i.e. the AK47 of phones) mobile phone with basic wap/sms/voice stuff. Use the hand crank or solar cell for power. Make it so they can be repaired or upgraded with very basic tools and modular cheap off the shelf parts. Then deploy a basic cell phone or satellite network.

This will allow communication in emergencies, farmers to get weather info via SMS or WAP, doctors to give or receive advice. And it’s much more useful.

So what are your thoughts?

*

I heard about this from a time I was working at the MotoGP. These guys were doing a race across Africa and came across all these broken vehicles with very little wrong with them. When they asked why they hadn't been fixed they were told that the parts were too difficult to get, to expensive and no one knew how to do it anyway. So when they broke they stayed broken.

So the guys had set up a charity to donate these people old motorbikes, spare parts and training to the locals. This proved far more useful than donating newer vehicles that were to complex.

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What Africa needs is an export market.

Large areas of Africa have an excellent climate for growing corn and tomatoes and such. The problem is that those same products are being farmed in excessive qualtities in Europe or elsewhere, where the farmers are given enormous subsidies to make the growing of these crops economically viable (as the local climate makes these crops difficult to grow).

But BECAUSE they produce such excessive amounts, these European countries end up with a large excess that they need to do something with. Up until now, they chose to export the excess, in particular to Africa, and do so against dumping prices that the local economy simply couldn't compete with. Some African nations tried to impose a tax of some sorts to protect their market, but were quickly reminded of their reliance on foreign aid, which would diminish swiftly if they were to actually implement such taxing rules. And it's not just vegetables and such. Even things such as sweets. A local candy factory that uses the sugar cane they grew locally to make sweets was already being forced to scale down its operations simply because the imported sweets were so much cheaper.

I'm sure having decent local government would go quite a ways to helping these people, but a laptop...? Waste of time, effort and money at this stage. There are more important problems that need to be solved first.

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