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Can low-cost computers make a difference in rural Africa?

Posted by espen Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Access to computers for the rural poor has been on the radar of the development community for quite some time now, with both advocates and critics vividly promoting their personal views.  The primary point of the critics is rooted in the opportunity-cost of investing in computers, meaning that there are many more important things that the rural-poor may need (such as clean drinking water, improved health, and access to teachers) than a computer.

Farmers in Swaziland prepare the soil for new planting season ©IFAD
In many cases I agree. However, in some cases there are real needs, and an economic-case to be made for access to computers.  I came across one such case during my recent travel to Swaziland, where some advanced farmer-companies consisting of poor rural farmers wanted a computer and appropriate accessories to effectively manage their business. This included simple tasks such as photo copying, typing, emailing, accounting and budgeting. One company we visited had already started to budget for purchasing equipment and planned to invest in a computer shortly.  However, for an entrepreneur living at the base of the pyramid, the barriers to entry into owning a computer are often too high.

A simple Google search reveal that even equipment envisaged for rural Africa is very expensive. For example, the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) cost more than $209 in 2011[1]. On the basis of such expenses, if the 40% of the global population living on less than $2 a day would want to access a computer, they would have to spend around 30% of their annual income. With average global spending on Information communication technology (ICT) being around 3%[2], it is unrealistic to expect a rural-poor user to be able to absorb such a cost.  It would take 10 people to share the cost in order to reach “global expense levels”, and even then the cost would be at the expense of other vital things such as food, medicine, or education for your children. Other low-cost initiatives estimate prices at $500[3], or the $350 Nigerian Inye tablet[4].

Raspberry Pi - courtesy wikipedia
This was until recently, when the Cambridge-designed Raspberry Pi (http://www.raspberrypi.org/ ) was introduced. The Pi (as it goes as) can be bought in two models at $25 and $35 respectively. The price can be a little deceiving as you only buy the circuit board, and would need to obtain an SD card; power cable; keyboard; mouse; and some sort of screen separately, but it still leaves some room for excitement, and here are my four reasons why:

A big expense with imports are always the duties, and unfortunately, most computers currently tend to be produced outside of Africa (the Inye for example is produced in China). If you import a $1,000 or even $500 item, taxes can add up. However, at $35 unit cost, taxes should not have such a huge effect as even a 100% taxation would result in a $70 unit. 

The Raspberry Pi is highly flexible in terms of cost, you can use it with almost any type of television set (which often is available in rural areas) ; without a case or possibly build one yourself; and can run it completely on opensource software, saving licensing fees or having to use pirated software.
When I visit rural areas I often see “old” non-functioning computers left in some corner of an office. I would argue there are a range of accessories available locally, such as computer mice, cables, or even monitors that could be acquired at a relatively low price.

The Pi is based on Linux, which is virtually virus free. Viruses are a huge problem with windows machines in Africa. In addition, the system is installed on an SD card, which can be very easily (and at a relatively low cost) replaced, possibly resulting in less computers being left unused due to software problems.

As the Pi is simply a circuit-card, it opens up the opportunity for a local market where cases and used accessories can be sold. Similarly, the use of opensource software would arguably make it easier for local entrepreneurs to provide tech support and additional services around software packages. Although it would probably not be a comparatively huge employment-generator ,  it may create additional jobs and create an IT-ecosystem that is less dependent upon non-African supply-chains. For example, a certified Microsoft supplier will need to have gone through certain training and pay a fee to Microsoft, which may act as a barrier-to-entry for local entrepreneurs. 

Additionally, working with opensource will lower the barriers-to-entry into software development for local developers as per definition, almost anyone can contribute to an opensource software project. It would most possibly open up a need for software developed for local context and needs, and thus create a demand for local software developers. Subsequently, more activities and demand in the African-software-development-sphere would quite possibly result in increased innovation and software being developed from the continent.     

Obviously the Pi is not the solution to all problems, and there are potential challenges. One being that the Linux operating system is not as widely used as Windows. However, there are Linux capable people on the continent and vibrant communities emerging that could support the introduction of the Pi. To explore the potential of low-cost-computers further, a few Pi’s are being tested in IFAD-financed programmes in Mozambique and Swaziland. The pilots include the Pi as a business tool for rural-farmer-companies and rural extension offices, and as a mean to access information online such as extension services through small rural-youth-run internet cafés.

What do you think? Could the Pi make a difference in Africa?

[1] Rawsthorn, "A few stumbles on the road to connectivity", Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/19/arts/design/a-few-stumbles-on-the-road-to-connectivity.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
[3] Balacing Act Africa, "Intel and AMD battle for low-cost computer market", Available at: http://www.balancingact-africa.com/news/en/issue-no-310/computing/intel-and-amd-battle/en
[4] BBC, "Nigeria's low-cost tablet computer", Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-18895366


  1. Marius said:
  2. Handheld computing is the future. The Raspberry Pi requires pherepials, computer skills and access to a constand power supply.

    I'd place my bet on cheap tablets, like the Android powered Ubislate.


  3. Claus said:
  4. Very interesting. I'm curious regarding the continuation of the story, how the farmer company gets its circuit board, builds a wooden box around it, connects it to a keyboard and screen the farmers still have flying around in a corner (with the help of a technician, I guess), and finally start doing some work with it.
    Please keep me posted.

  5. espen said:
  6. Thank you both for your very valuable inputs. I agree with you Marius that handheld devices such as smartphones and tablets will most probably take a larger market-share. However, I still think there is a space for a computer. The $USD 40 Aakash tablet is promising, but has as far as I am aware, it has experienced serious challenges with quality and supply. Although I am sure one day we will get a $40 tablet that is reliable and can rival most computers (and maybe that will be the Aakash tablets in due time), at the moment, while we are waiting for that day, the Raspberry Pi is in the market and receiving very good reviews. So it could possibly be a good entry-point to computers in rural Africa.

  7. I think it is better if many students in Africa can have an access in computer. It will surely help them in their studies.

  8. Really i appreciate the effort you made to share the knowledge.The topic here i found was really effective to the topic which i was researching for a long time.