The journalist John Dvorak is one of the shrewdest observers of the computer scene. In an article for Marketwatch, he manages to both highlight the folly of the so-called $100 laptop and reinforce my view that electricity is the most neglected technology in Africa. Efforts to promote the Web and wider computer usage are well and good, so long as even more energetic efforts are being made to promote access to electricity. In his story for Marketwatch, Dvorak summarizes my argument and quotes me making what he describes as a “profound” point: “The fact that these people need electricity more than they need a laptop is only part of the problem,” Dvorak quotes me as saying. “The real problem is lost mind share. The [African] people are harmed because these sorts of schemes are sopping up mind-share time of the people who might be doing something actually useful.” The challenge of spreading electricity beyond African elites in cities is a challenge that is both expensive and management-intensive. In its new edition of “African Development Indicators,” the single best source of statistics on Africa, the World Bank provides the definitive data on electricity access. The numbers remain dismall, with less than 5 percent of all Africans south of the Sahara receiving reliable electricity service. The cost to bring electricity to something like half of all Africans will run into the tens of billions of dollars. There are innovative advances to be made of course in solar and other alternative forms of energy. Computers and the Web will be all the more valuable when electricification in Africa becomes the norm. My good friend Guido Sohne, a software engineer in Accra, Ghana, agrees with me on this point. Sohne, who is a smart observer of the effects of new technologies on African life, writes: Saw Dvorak’s article quoting you, there was a thread in LinuxAccra where I also covered this and we seem to have reached the same conclusions. What was really news to me was the following quote, and I would be grateful if Dvorak could let me know the sources he used for this. I am specifically interested in ‘government inteference’ regarding building cheap machines for the ‘Third World’. In fact AMD has a slew of low-end parts in the $100 laptop. But the company, at the same time, is discontinuing its own initiative to make cheap machines for the Third World, citing government interference and other problems.
Here is (part of) the thread in the LinuxAccra mailing list.