OLPC Nigeria's Shocking Electrical Power Costs

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Low OLPC XO transportation costs

Do you remember Jon's computation of One Laptop Per Child "$100 laptop" costs that concluded that XO's are really "$1,000 laptops"? Or the implementation cost follow-up where we debated the estimate in detail? Or José Antonio Meira da Rocha's OLPC Brazil laptop costs comparison study?

Jon's general point was that computer hardware is usually only one small component of the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) for technology implementations in the developing world. Training, maintenance, and Internet connectivity can drastically increase a project's scope and expense

Expenses in follow-on years are even more difficult to cover when the initial excitement of new shiny flashy things has past. Now that the initial fanfare around the One Laptop Per Child pilot testing in Galadima School, Abuja, Nigeria is waning, OLPC Nigeria is starting to learn this lesson with a cost we didn't include: electricity.

First, Tomi Davies explains the infrastructure he installed to wire the school for power and Internet:

This comprised of a 15KVa electricity generator for power supply, a VSAT dish for internet connectivity, WiFi access points, to connect the laptops to the VSAT (Which was provided by Accelon) as well as to one another and electrical wiring of the classrooms where the XO's were to be used by the children and their teachers (to facilitate laptop battery recharging). An alternate power source (solar panels using gange chargers) was also used to support the laptops power needs.
A quick and rough pricing out of that parts list can give us a basic cost estimate to install One Laptop Per Nigerian Child at one school:
$5,000 - 15KVa electricity generator
$3,000 - VSAT dish
$50 - WiFi access points
$100 - electrical wiring of the classrooms
$600 - solar panels
$250 - gang charger
Admittedly, this is just a very rough guesstimate for a high-profile school in the nation's capitol, but if we multiply the $9,000 in initial installation costs by the 41,531 primary schools we find that wiring elementary schools for OLPNC would cost $374 million dollars, or another $24 per primary schoolchild.

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Not cheap to buy or run

But don't be quick to assume that costs stop there. While the XO laptop may be close to indestructible, power generators are not. And expensive power generators bring their own set of problems.

From the Nigeria Chapter of the Club of Rome, we learn that the generator has to be stored in the principal's office to prevent theft, requires costly gasoline, and servicing that can take days. Worst of all, the generator broke down, burning out the UPS for the Internet, and its still insufficient for all the power needs of the school.

Children and teachers can recharge OLPC XO's using batteries that are recharged with the solar gang charger, but there's no Internet connection without generator-supplied power for the VSAT. Of course, a few parents might think the lack of Internet a good thing, what with pupils turning XO's into porn servers.

And before you say "UNICEF will come to the rescue," note that it's only offered to help OLPNC convince Nigerian businesses to sponsor XO's as part of their corporate social responsibility. With costs at least $176 per child and $15,500 per school for just hardware alone, UNICEF and OLPNC will need all the convincing help they can get.

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X0s could function quite well without all of the extra hardware described in this article, with just hand chargers, solar chargers, and mesh networking. The full-blown internet might prove to be a bit much of a shock for many communities

In the rural training colleges for teachers in Uganda, the cost of electricity for a ten computer lab (CRTs, not LCDs) plus printer, projector, and two air conditioners sometimes trebled the electricity bill for the college, and this was unanticipated. From my 2003 report on Connect-Ed.

And they had backup generators that used expensive fuel when the grid was down. All in all, a real financial burden.


You mean the Connect-ED project evaluation where you said Total Cost of Ownership was not considered or made explicit by the planners or contractors (kinda of like OLPNC) which led to this problem:

"Electrical problems have delayed one lab from opening, caused frequent interruptions in lab use, and destroyed Internet relay hardware owned by the ISP. Electricity costs appear to be a huge portion of the lab expenses and this has caused PTCs to spend far more than budgeted. Power consumption was not a criterion in equipment selection."



The laptop can function (though not well; the pull-cord is not sufficient for powering full-time usage, it extends the usage for eBook mode (10 minutes for 1 pulling). The full school server, while it can run on the laptop, wouldn't give the full benefits of storage space as such.

Further, the Bitfrost security system, which bricks stolen laptops, requires Internet connectivity (every n weeks, default, 2 weeks) to check the national list of stolen laptops.

OLPC laptops still require some access to electricity, as do their accouterments of Internet connectivity and most school servers. They just can survive with a lot less, less predictable, and less "clean" electricity available in developing countries; which is fantastic.

At last we see some hard figures on what it takes to make the _system_ run that results in XO operation. If you claim that the computers you are supplying will "just run", you are failing to recognize the need for entire supply systems. The users cannot run down to the local computer store, or even to the local hardware store, since such stores do not exist in the poorer countries.

There's a whole ecosystem of replacement parts, aftermarket items (including tool kits for the necessary repairs and replacement tools for those toolkits) as well as instructional materials etc. that have to be provided for a system like this to operate. The ecosystem must be self-sustaining and self-repairing - simply having the necessary parts etc. in a warehouse in the capital city isn't sufficient.

What's necessary is a wholesale supply business that will provide local entrepreneurs with the necessary materials and credit to start and sustain stores to serve the new market that will be created with the arrival of the laptops.

This is why I keep talking about the concept of "one telecentre per village" as a necessary precursor to "one laptop per child". A telecentre is a business that provides communications services to an area and, if successful, can provide the nucleus of the support network that OLPC seems to assume will exist.

Setting it up will all requires careful design and the ability to make changes as conditions change from the original assumptions. Definitely not a job for a command economy.

If you give kids laptops and a way to power them (solar seems the most obvious) why do you need all the other equipment? Air Conditioning? Why have a server? Why satellite internet? Routers? Switches?

The laptops themselves would seem to be sufficient for learning with. All the rest is just fluff.

If you give a child a book do you have to build a library to store it in?

Robert & Don,

I agree, Internet connectivity is not required for learning, if you have strong local content and curriculum resources on a local network. And while we understand this, the OLPC leadership is insistent on describing full Internet as an integral part of the XO laptop experience: http://www.olpcnews.com/hardware/wireless/internet_connectivity_olpc.html

XO is designed to use as little power as possible. It can function in black and white mode drawing as little as 200 milliwatts, that's 300 times less power consumption then the Classmate which has a 65Watts power supply according to Nicholas Negroponte. In full backlight and full processing mode, the XO consumes still less than 2Watts, thus 30 times less then the Classmate.


The power supply rating does not indicate how much power the Classmate consumes. It is (hopefully) rated above the power requirements.

At MIT's Digital Nations kickoff meeting in 2000 Seymour Papert said the Internet was not required for effective learning if the computer had sufficient resources. There certainly seems to be a lot to explore on the XO without going on the Internet.

Re: telecenters. I tend to agree with Lee about their usefulness, though they have been hard to sustain, partly because they start out serving the underserved, and it's hard to recover costs to keep the center running. However, they do provide a good environment for people to take classes, hang out, trade info and knowledge, or just use equipment they can't afford to own.

The connectivity requirement may be more political necessity then educational. Computers without the internet is obviously an inferior arrangement to computers with internet, the more pragmatic considerations be damned.

The prospective purchasers of the XO are liable to have a tough enough time funding the purchase as is but if it's distinctly a second-class solution, as political opponents will portray it to be, it'll make it just that much harder to fund the purchase.

Also, among the supporters and contributors to the project there'd almost certainly be a negative reaction for the same reason.

Two things about the tally above: is a 15kva generator necessary? That seems to be way more power then the server and XO's need. How power-hungry is a VSAT?

The second: why isn't the school server on the list? Seems to me that an XO installation would be handicapped by its absence.

Or Nigeria could sell one of is Fighter Aircraft that would more that cover the price tag for the whole school system being connected to the Internet for OLPC, but would that be a cool thing to do as a political figure?

And if the final production order is fewer than 300 aircraft, the unit price will rise from the original $10 million to $15 million. And with the modifications, the Nigerian Air Force is requesting from the manufacturers the cost of weapon systems, spare parts and other ground equipment, the prices would obviously go higher.

Though no official of the Ministry of Defence or the NAF is willing to speak on the procurement, the 2005 Appropriation Act passed by the National Assembly and signed by President Olusegun Obasanjo has provision of N3 billion for the "procurement of Chinese aircraft" for the NAF.


Hi all . . .

A very interesting topic thread, indeed.

"The users cannot run down to the local computer
store, or even to the local hardware store, since
such stores do not exist in the poorer countries.

"There's a whole ecosystem of replacement parts,
aftermarket items (including tool kits for the
necessary repairs and replacement tools for those
toolkits) as well as instructional materials etc.
that have to be provided for a system like this
to operate."

Yes, very true.

This brings me back to the question that I've had casually pursued
for several weeks now, regarding the particular size of the DC power plug that is being used on the XO. As noted earlier, Potenco wouldn't divulge details (afraid of getting browbeaten by Nicholas Negraponte?)
and the OLPC inquiries that I made two weeks ago went unanswered. I simply gave up and went on to other pursuits.

So imagine my surprise when I got an email from OLPC on Tuesday stating the following . . .

"The latest one I've seen is about 3.25 inches by
2 inches. The voltage and such will be different
depending on the country"

Well, I thought to myself, that a pretty damned big plug! And
they're going to alter the specifications for different geographic locations? It's obvious that this administrative staff person was confusing a power transformer for a connector. I wrote back (with visual referrences on hyperlinks showing pictures of common connectors) in an attempt to finally get an answer.
This is a portion of the reply that I received . . .

". . . we do appreciate all the interest of the public for sure, but we do not have the time or a department to answer a question like this. We are busy engineering!"

So I fired back an email to say that a good engineer would know the difference between a plug and a transformer, expecting that no further contact from OLPC would be forthcoming. I was surprise, once again, to find a reply to my bitter snipe in my inbox the next morning, basically stating the same thing that had been said by this person the day before. I thought it prudent to write back. Not having read the OLPC News
article here yet, it was mere coincidence that I used a Nigerian analogy . . .

" . . . Sorry for the off-handed quip yesterday.
But here are some real concerns that you and your
team might want to ponder during the next Sushi
break . . .

*The information I'm requesting is NOT presented on
any of the OLPC pages. Please believe me when I tell
you that I've have combed through all of them very
carefully before I began my bothersome email

*If I (technically adept, too much free time on my
hands, etc.) cannot extract this information from
the OLPC engineering and public relations oligarchy,
then how is someone in one of these third world
countries going to get through? What are you going
to tell the poor kid in Nigeria who wants to hook
up a car battery to his XO when he asks the exact
same questions that I have been asking?

*This IS something that someone in a far more
desperate situation than I will be asking of you
some day. I would encourage your team to make the
power input statistics publicly known at their
earliest convenience.

Dual mode screens, state-of-the-art WiFi reception
and a cutting edge Linux GUI aside, if you (OLPC)
can't tell someone what size power input plug is
being used and how it's polarized, then your precious
computer becomes a useless plastic brick on an
African prairie in no time flat."

No reply from OLPC as of yet. It remains to be seen if I will (or anyone who would
REALLY needs to know) will be able to find this out.

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The important thread coming to light (again) here is that no development projects happen in a vacuum. You have electricity supply problems (even a purely solar-cell solution is not a drop-in fix; they too require training in usage, and some sustained support service and replacement part service - check out this http://www.nextbillion.net/node/1409 case study on PVs in rural Nicaragua for both a great example of providing sustainable PV access and support, as well as the extensive human network, investment, and implementation that it takes to "just" provide electricity.

Internet's a much more complex and expensive problem. Any "gimmie" system will eventually start requiring payment, and current commercial prices are through the roof in LDC countries, as I pointed out in my TCO post. Lee's plan to start with a telecentre per village (check out India's http://www.digitaldividend.org/case/case_echoupal.htm e Choupal project for an example that meets agricultural market needs while extending Internet access into rural areas). This plan attracts and/or creates local communities of technological capacity and expertise, and increases the availability of replacement parts, support services, and Internet/electricity services, in a way that's not only sustainable, but provides new employment opportunities in an area.

As Allen pointed out, a 15 kva is overkill for olpc. But suppose we accept it and then double it to take into account gas and maintainance, then we get $50.

That is way less than the $500 for five years in Jon's original post. And remember that everyone in the village, not just the students, is going to use the XO's for internet access.

Is ten or twenty dollars per person for internet access a good economic development investment? I would say so.

One solar stirling per school?
I was just wondering if such a solution would be feasible. Have no idea how much would cost such thing if made not for (big) profit and in larger quantities.

Some webpages:

OLPC Peru is also having unanticipated electrical issues:

Plugging in the laptops is an issue that has to be looked into soon. The school electricity set up is for handling only one light bulb per room, so having many laptops charging at the same time is not safe. Also, because all the children want to plug in their laptops at the same time.

We are encouraging them to bring their laptops fully charged from home, though the battery takes too long to get fully charged and around 2 to 3 hours to get discharged.
Children found that the chargers get too hot for them, so they have been instructed to turn off the power strip before lacing or removing their charger.

We have two children with no power at home, so they will be given preference, charging their laptops early morning and before leaving school.



It is amazing that in the western world we are buying throw away generators from the new Asian copies. Yet what we need is to invest in a secure power-source and therefore overall future.

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Power is Knowledge.

The Adi Brahmo Samaj runs education projects in over India for underprivileged sections needing rugged open source education tools. Should we buy OLPC devices or Intel Classmate. please help us out.


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where can we get training for Solar power instalation

You can get it via online resources!

It just depends what you know and need to learn for your specific electrical needs.