Why Laptops Are Gathering Dust in Developing Countries

“Everybody agrees that whatever the solutions are to the big problems, they … can never be without some element of education.” –Nicholas Negroponte


Monica Rex

Students in Bhutan using OLPC laptops. https://flic.kr/p/7aa6qg



Nicholas Negroponte is not only the founder of the MIT Media Lab who doubles as an investor, inventor, and extreme thinker, but he is also the founder of the One Laptop per Child program. The program’s mission is to “empower the world’s poorest children through education” by providing “each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop.”

Negroponte dreamed big. His goal was to put $1oo laptops in the hands of underprivileged children in order to perk their curiosity and promote education. And he succeeded, in part. Over 2.5 million children in Latin American and Africa have laptops that cost roughly $200, double the goal. So, how did he make a $200 laptop and more importantly, why haven’t you heard about the 2.5 million he distributed?


The Computer

Building a computer for $200 is no small feat. This realization was achieved through:

  • Lowering cost display
    • Turning down background lighting to preserve energy
    • Black and white option
  • Huge bulk orders


XO Laptop distributed through One Laptop Per Child. Photo credit to Scott Beale / Laughing Squid

XO Laptop distributed through One Laptop Per Child. Photo credit to Scott Beale / Laughing Squid


  • Durability
  • Weather conditions
  • High heat and humidity
  • Easy repair
  • Local language


Learning: Why Wasn’t OLPC a Hit?

Goal setting

How can you reach a goal if you don’t set one? https://flic.kr/p/7XjosB

1. No clear goals. It seems like Negroponte simply loved the idea of providing kids with knowledge at their fingertips. And that is great. But what was his goal? Was he trying to improve test scores? (That didn’t work.) Did he want the next Google programmers to come out of Africa? The project lacked a clear means of measuring success and thus a clear focus.

2. No customization. Yunus had some words of wisdom. Culture matters! For example, the music app did not allow students to produce beats that matched some of the local traditional music, so they just stopped trying.
3. Lack of training. Apparently, only 70% of teachers had a mere 40 hours of training before laptops were distributed to their students. Teachers take years to learn how they teach best; trying to retrain an old dog (no offense teachers) in 40 hours is quite ambitious.
4. Misunderstanding of the target audience. OLPC wanted to lower costs, so (as mentioned above) they sold in bulk. They initially wanted orders to be a minimum of 1 million laptops. For a developing country, that’s an investment of around $200 million for a product they don’t know will be successful.


Not Done Yet

Education is the way to go. Forge on, Negroponte. Courtesy of Pratham Books. https://flic.kr/p/61T8sa

Education is the way to go. Forge on, Negroponte.
Courtesy of Pratham Books. https://flic.kr/p/61T8sa

Did Negroponte fail to leave the legacy through OLPC that he had envisioned? Yes, I think so. Is he done yet? Absolutely not.

I admire Negroponte. He has a huge heart. He dreamed big about helping underprivileged children discover education and technology. He took it to heart when a child in Nigeria said he “valued his laptop more than his life.” He envisioned a world where education opened doors. Education is essential to any progress.

I will learn from Negroponte’s past projects and cheer him on to his future endeavors. (Yes, he has kept tweaking the laptop and now is distributing $100 tablets.)

After all, “Cynicism is easy. Hope is harder.”


What do you think? Was OLPC a failure?



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