Laptops for Kids and Shared Village-wide Cell Phones can Fight Systemic Deep Poverty

Report from Boston Book Fair panel on inclusive technology by SXhel Horowitz

Horace Mann, founding President of Antioch College, famously said “Be ashamed to die until you have won one victory for humanity.” Neither Nicholas Negroponte nor Iqbal Quadir will ever have to worry about shaming themselves in front of Horace Mann’s ghost.


These two M.I.T. professors have both made substantial contributions in developing countries, bringing life-changing technology to villages that don’t even have electricity or running water.

Negroponte is the key mover behind <a href=””>One Laptop Per Child</a>, an initiative to develop and distribute rugged but cheap (like $100 per unit) laptops to school children, in 18 countries so far. Quadir convinced Bangladeshi microlending pioneer Grameen Bank (founded by Mohammad Yunnis, who received the Nobel Peace prize for his efforts) to underwrite Grameenphone, a business providing cell phone services to villages with no telephone at all.

Both men spoke at a panel during the Boston Book Fair, coincidentally on Climate Action Day, October 24, 2009. And both have had a major impact.

Negroponte’s rugged, lightweight laptops can be thrown or dropped with no bad consequence, use only three watts of power (he’s aiming for just one watt on a forthcoming redesign), and both the battery and the computer are designed to last at least five years—about double the typical laptop lifespan—and to minimize waste impact when they are finally past their useful life and life extensions such as use as a TV. With no electricity grid, they’re recharged with hand-cranks, solar photovoltaics, or car batteries.

Each laptop comes preloaded with not only productivity software, but also 100 books whose creators have agreed to make their content available. That means that if a village receives 100 laptops, it suddenly has a library of 10,000 titles (a larger collection than many small-town physical libraries in the United States).

These computers are designed directly to foster social change: newly literate school children use satellite wi-fi to access the Internet, learn literacy as well as research skills, and even teach their parents to read. For many of these kids, their first English word is “Google.”


In October, 2009, Uruguay became the first country to get these laptops into the hands of every single school child; Cambodia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Peru are among the other countries with a program. Negroponte would love to “take one day of [the cost of war in] Iraq and Afghanistan and do the children in those countries.” In Afghanistan, where many girls are prevented from going to school, the plan he has worked out with the Afghani Minister of Education is to seed the laptops first to girls, so they can learn outside of the classrooms they’re not allowed to attend.

But his vision is much grander: “It would take $30 billion to do every kid in the world. We gave away more than twice that much to AIG.”
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Grameen Phone</a> uses a very different business model: funding new small businesses through microlending, and then changing the society as that business rewrites the entire village culture. “Connectivity is productivity,” says Quadir.

In 1993, there was one (land-line) telephone for every 500 Bangladeshis, and 73 percent for the phones were in Dhaka, the capital. Grameen came in and began lending small amounts of capital to entrepreneurs, who provided and operated a village telephone, where residents could rent time whenever they needed to make a call, and paid back the loans out of profits.

The benefits are “inclusive, egalitarian, and immediate,” and the results are astounding. Each 10 percent increase in cell phone penetration corresponds with a .8 percent increase in the country’s Gross Domestic Product.  By 2005, the company had 250,000 retailers, 22 million subscribers, and 50 million cell phones (many of them smart phones that bring computing power to these remote villages). It expects to have 5 billion phones in place by 2015, which will be near-total penetration of the population.

Yet the magnitude of change from this initiative may not even be apparent for some time. Rural electrification in the U.S., says Quadir, didn’t happen immediately after the development of electrical utilities. It went to rural areas decades later, when refrigeration made it possible for farmers to store food much longer, and therefore shift perishable food production and distribution from regionally to nationally based.

Telephone service, he says, is “the low-hanging fruit. From the juice of the low-hanging fruit, you get the energy you need to climb the tree and take the higher fruit.”