May 16, 2006

Nigerians partner on rugged Solo computer

Author: Rod Amis

The challenges for IT in places like Africa, where a number of developing nations reside, are formidable: power grid issues, metered telephony in many cases, and the heat, sand, or storm conditions that make hardware difficult to maintain. One group in Nigeria, the Fantsuam Foundation, is partnering with expLAN Computers, Ltd. of Devon, United Kingdom, to developing a computer that addresses hardware issues. The effort is called the Solo Computer Project.

Briefly, the Solo computer is full-sized, ultra-low-power machine meant to be transportable, as opposed to portable. To achieve the low power objective, it operates from "a number of different power sources including solar panels and lead-acid vehicle batteries. Its ultra-low-power design enables it to be used indefinitely away from sources of main electricity." It is transportable because the entire device can be solid state, with no disk drives or moving parts.

In addition, one of the Solo Project goals is that the computers themselves are designed to be assembled and manufactured in the developing nations where they are to be used, providing for local employment. According to Dada, Solo units are currently being manufactured in Nigeria.

Fantsuam Foundation became involved with the project, says Foundation spokesman John Dada, because it is "actively involved with microfinance and information and communication technology initiatives which enhance the economic opportunities within rural communities in northern Nigeria. Fantsuam is now building on the bedrock of small-scale businesses which it has stimulated in the region and is initiating the processes necessary to offer larger employment opportunities. One of these is the local manufacture of the Solo computer technology, which is a fully commercial operation.

"Our experience with imported refurbished computers led to the conclusion that these systems cannot cope with the dust and heat of our environment. ExpLAN is developing the Solo to meet these challenges."

Fantsuam's mission focuses on relieving poverty, especially among rural clan women and youth in Nigeria. Its commitment is to use IT to achieve this goal through both small business and educational initiatives.

The initial price for the Solo computer is slated to be around $1,000. We asked Dada if this was prohibitive for any but large organizations.

"Given its special features and minimum life span of 12 years, the total cost of ownership of the Solo remains competitive. The Solo remains one of the most viable solutions for the 50% of the world's population that still lives beyond power grids. We are looking at various funding options for communities that cannot afford the cost. Please note that the Western concept of a computer having individual ownership doesn't immediately translate into the rural African society.

"You can also have a look at TuxMobil, which lists many commercial or amateur attempts at producing similar PCs. The typical price of such products can be as high as $2,000. I hope this puts into perspective the projected price of a Solo."

We asked Dada to compare Solo with the work being done by Nicholas Negroponte on the $100 computer and projects like Simputer. He said, "The $100 computer has had remarkable publicity. It is meant for use in education in the developing world, and the team is still working on its software and hardware options.

"There are still rather few educational software [products] yet written for Linux. So there's a lot more required than just producing a cheap computer with a free office suite and browser on it.

"The $100 laptop isn't even targeting the same market as the Solo at the moment. The press releases for the $135 laptop state that its standard power source is a mains electricity adapter built into the carry strap. This is obviously satisfactory for the existing schools with mains power. Beyond that, it is possible that its designers may eventually succeed in the development of a power-generator run from a foot-treadle. If they do create such a mechanism, then it is theoretically possible to promote such technology into schools in rural areas. But it will take a lot more than the importing of such technology to change the imbalance of educational opportunities beyond the main cities and towns.

"Like the $100 laptop, the Simputer has also been developed to have a low purchase price. However, this is achieved by compromising the specifications such that it is not appropriate technology to be used as a main computer for an office or school. The screen resolution is unable to fully display across a page of text or a normal Web page, for which 800x600 [pixels] would usually be expected. The Simputer behaves more like a PDA and uses dry cells, which have to be changed and charged externally.

"This is typical of the difficulties which arise when designers concentrate on the criteria of having a low retail price. You tend to get something which doesn't quite fulfill the need. The Solo design has a full-size screen and would normally be used with a standard keyboard and mouse. So it is able to run normal desktop software, such as word processors and graphics applications, and will function as a full desktop computer would do."

Fantsuam and expLAN are committed to ongoing rigorous field-testing of the Solo, Dada says, and its reception in the rural communities where they've introduced it has been enthusiastic. Further modifications and design enhancements are expected based on the responses of these users. He says, "We are looking at the style of the case we will offer, and discussing what software is required for each of the target markets.

"It's an important step for Nigeria to have a voice in the delivery of appropriate technology for its large rural communities. We are keen not to simply import strategies which are found in Western culture."

Click Here!