3 Reasons Why OLPC Latin America Proves XO-1 Market


One Laptop Per Child likes to say that its XO laptop helps elevate the poorest children in the world through education. But there has always been doubt that computers - technology of any kind - should come before clean water, safe food, and other basic necessities.

Dr. Tabaré Vázquez's laptop legacy

OLPC sales in Latin America proves an XO laptop market

While there are few governments looking at OLPC as a country-wide solution for Africa - even Rwanda's program is only 10% of all school children - in Latin America we have several countries at or near total XO laptop saturation. According to the Miami Herald:

  • On March 17, Peru signed a deal for an additional 260,000 laptops, for a total of 590,000 XO's delivered to Peru's elementary school children
  • On March 18, Argentina's government delivered the first of 250,000 Intel "Classmate" laptops for students of technical high schools
  • Also on March 18, the mayor of Buenos Aires, an opposition leader, announced that his city will order 190,000 laptops for elementary school children.
  • Last month, Brazil announced a bid to buy 1.5 million laptops for elementary school children.

Now not all of these are OLPC-specific sales, but the impact is there. Uruguay already became the first country in the world to give XO laptops to all elementary school children in public schools.

Now why is this? Why does Latin America lead the world in OLPC sales?

1. Latin America is ready for XO investments

Unlike Africa, Latin America already has the basics covered. Food, water, shelter are easily obtainable and the population is stable. They're looking for a competitive boost against Asia, which often thinks itself beyond the need of Western ideas to continue its success. Latin America, with closer ties to the USA, is more open to Yankee ideas, as long as they can make them their own, as Plan Ceibal has done.

Latin America also has the school infrastructure in place to handle technology. For the most part, classrooms exist, schools have electricity and good teachers, and adding XO's requires a general infrastructure upgrade. In Africa and South Asia, the school infrastructure may not even exist.

2. Latin America has the financial ability to buy XO's

While one laptop per child for any country is not cheap, the economies of Latin America are relatively robust. The government is able to tax its citizenry, doesn't rely too much on outside aid, and can borrow on the international market. This means that unlike Africa, the governments are much more autonomous and can spend on what they wish.

It also means that an XO purchase is less onerous to the overall government spending than in countries where the government is failing on providing basic services to its citizens. We can debate if the XO is a worthy investment, but at least these countries can afford to experiment.

3. Latin American politicians must woo their electorate

Where some African and Asian politicians are "elected" in what are often shady or outright rigged elections - or not elected at all - the presidents of Latin America must work for their electoral victories. They need to get folks voting for them, and one laptop per child is a great vote-getter.

Along with a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage, a laptop for every child is exciting for parents to hear. And when children bring home laptops as promised, presidents get loved. Now presidents loving laptops doesn't equal ministers buying XO's, but it does mean someone is gonna buy some type of ICT for schools.


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I have been highly critical of the general OLPC approach, which emphasizes mass distribution of XOs to children in the poorest countries, with neit... [more]


I have always thought that the OLPC was developed with an eye to South America. So I do agree.

I never considered sub-Sahara Africa as a viable market. Too many other problems. But then, what do I know about Africa of South America?

But I also think countries like the Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia would be valid targets. They share some of the features you mention with South America.


Hmmm, makes a lot of sense but ultimately, while *it is* happening to some extent, some of those very same arguments of affordability and electoral needs also exist in the US, Canada, Europe, Israel, Australia, and most of these places are *not* rushing to get laptops - Portugal may be the closest, and that's it AFAIK.

Even then, many L.A. countries are not rushing in either, though if Brazil and Argentina do it for real, the bandwagon might be all that is needed to get several others to jump in. Several other countries are into some sort of completed or planned project to get computers to every teacher at least.

Fact is, the whole laptop thingie has a lot of credibility issues, and I find it hard to blame decision-makers and big funders from taking their time and ask for solid evidence, which the current deployments don't seem to care to provide.

I guess that a certain degree of gullibility by the electorate is needed, then. I am very sorry for the high hopes Uruguayan parents have, 54% of those surveyed said they expect learning to improve a lot because of Ceibal, 34% more expect it to improve some... (slide 38 of the official Ceibal report last year). That, when there is still extremely little curricular content available, 3 years already into it.

OTOH, Winter, providing laptops to the poorest places has a lot of emotional appeal, thus the images that are part of pretty much any NGO appeal involved in this kind of thing, including of course mine :-)


The OLPC does not make sense when parents can buy their own computers. Nor when there are ample teachers available.

I think there is a sweet spot for OLPC like initiatives. There must be just enough infrastructure to be able to distribute, power, and deploy the laptops. At the same time, there should be a shortage of teachers and a general population unable to buy their own equipment. But parents must be convinced of the value of education.

LA fits the bill. I think some Asian countries do too. Although some might already be moving out of the poverty trap already (eg, Indonesia and Iran).

Negroponte must have some reason to appoint a Latin American to head up the distribution of OLPC.. In some ways he also believes that XO was made for Latin America. Though he claims that it was made for the poor. The fact that it took off in South America while generating interest sans action in the rest of the world suggests there are other drivers that determine the growth of OLPC distribution.

For instance, China has been very sceptical. No matter what Negroponte claims, people find it hard to believe that OLPC price equals cost. If that were the case, his team of distributors will not survive.

India has finally five states that have signed up. We get to hear that OLPC worldwide does not even want to offer guarantees of any kind to the governments when they give their money. In other words, OLPC wants the governments to change their ways of managing finance because it is a good thing to buy OLPC. That they may not be able to do. The reason for little movement for OLPC in India and neighboring countries is mostly logistical. If OLPC does what every other vendor does, and does not make profit, it will sell like a hot cake. That means running it like a non-profit business where other than not making profits, everything else runs like a business.

So what OLPC needs to do is hire people who are PAID in the first place. Then give them incentives. Then enable them with a marketing budget, advertisement in local environment. Then create an ecosystem where spares and repairs are visible to the buyers. Just to say its indestructible does not make sense to folks who have seen the world a little differently. Then understand the local procurement practices and respond to them. Have the basics of an organization in the first place.

Few in Asia, for example, believe Negroponte runs an organization that can deliver as they cannot find a balance sheet!

Its in accepting that while it may be possible to create a wonder product at MIT Media Lab, it takes the craft if not the art of a marketeer and a salesman that determines its success along with all the resources that it requires.

There is an interesting debate going on on some blog http://olpcliberators.wordpress.com/

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