The Indian government wasn't interested, so OLPC partners with Reliance ADA Group to bring computers to India's primary school kids
Nicholas Negroponte has found it tough going in India. For years as the head of MIT's Media Lab, the famed computer scientist promoted radical ways to use technology to transform society. His best-known idea is the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) program (BusinessWeek, 6/5/08), a plan to make a simple, $100 laptop that would create a digitally literate generation in the hardscrabble classrooms of emerging-market nations. The laptop, now dubbed the XO, is finally being mass-produced in China.
In 2001, the computer scientist came to India to promote the Media Lab, but failed to impress New Delhi. Negroponte clearly fell off the India map, when then-Information Technology Minister Arun Shourie dismissed his efforts as "pedagogically suspect" and wanted more accountability. When Negroponte's nonprofit One Laptop per Child foundation approached the Indian government in 2006, his project was again rebuffed by India's then-Education Secretary, Sudeep Banerjee (BusinessWeek.com, 8/16/06).
Two years later, Negroponte is back to open a new office in New Delhi and launch the OLPC program in India on Aug. 4. Despite all the rebuffs, Negroponte's urge to sell in India is stronger than ever. "India is the largest market for us, and I had to be here," he says. More important, Negroponte has a new partner—one of India's politically influential private-sector conglomerates. The Digital Bridge Foundation, part of Reliance ADA Group, owned by Indian billionaire Anil Ambani, is providing the technology backbone and logistics for the installation of OLPC's white and green XO laptops in primary schools.
OLPC has started out by giving its laptops free to Reliance, which has been in charge of distributing them and building awareness in India. Now, though, the time has come for both the U.S. non-profit and Reliance to accelerate the rollout. To do that, Reliance has set up the Digital Bridge Foundation, a charitable arm that will work with OLPC and pursue other proposals.
As they work together, the two sides have had their share of challenges. For instance, while Reliance officials characterize their relationship with OLPC as a partnership, executives from the U.S. non-profit describe it slightly differently. "Reliance created the Digital Bridge Foundation to help, but we have no formal partnership with Reliance," says Negroponte. The rhetorical tweak could be useful in India. State governments and development organizations in the country have tended to be skeptical about being openly associated with the private sector. "We believe that the industry does not have a similar passion like us, and their intentions often tend to have a commercial tinge," says Sai Prakash, head of Erin Foundation, a non-government organization based in Bangalore that does work promoting IT in the Indian countryside.
Whether you call it a partnership, an alliance, or something else, the relationship between OLPC and the Reliance-backed foundation is a complete change.
Seeking Inroads into India
This new partnership is a complete change from OLPC's global moves, which generally involve exclusive deals with governments in various countries as the best way to reach students. Today, Negroponte and his band of evangelists are ready to try anything to sell their laptops quickly: "Scale," says Negroponte, "is key to OLPC." So unlike other countries like Peru and Uruguay, for instance, where the XO laptops are completely funded by the federal state, the Indian blend will include corporations, industry bodies, and state governments. Recruiting Reliance and other allies may overcome New Delhi's lingering reluctance toward technology spending in primary education. "Our primary school children need reading and writing habits, not expensive laptops," says Arun Kumar Rath, India's Education Secretary.
For Negroponte, the Reliance partnership is an opportunity to make inroads into the huge Indian market: There are 370 million children studying in 1.2 million schools in India. Of these, primary schools pack in 150 million students, compared to 220 million in high school. For Reliance, India's second-largest telecom player, those big numbers provide a great commercial opportunity to expand its base of customers to the bottom of the pyramid. In the last few years, Reliance has been aggressively laying underground cables to increase bandwidth connectivity. "Reliance is in this whole networked economy. The OLPC initiative will help us bring in more users," says Sumit Chowdhury, chief information officer at Reliance. The company will sell bandwidth as the laptops will be connected to servers powered by Reliance. So far, the Reliance strategy has been to sell the XOs to nongovernment organizations (NGOs), which then donate them to schools.
An OLPC prototype project in India is already up and running at Khairat village, 26 miles south of Mumbai. Operating from a 10-by-12-foot room, the state-run school has 28 boys and girls from first to fourth grade squatting on thin, long mats on the floor. The self-motivated Sandeep Surve, 29, is the lone school teacher, who effortlessly goes from teaching spelling to the first-graders to explaining the solar system to the fourth-graders on their English-language XOs. Since Aug. 1, the laptops have also been operating with an interface for the local language, Marathi. "Now the children will be able to move ahead even faster. The XO will replace their notebooks completely," says Surve. For the students, who had never heard of a laptop until a year ago, the XO is more than a toy. Fourth-grader Geeta Akade proudly displays her work on the XO. In another corner, a group of young students are practicing their English alphabets, while 6-year-old Rahul is busy chatting online with his teacher. "I never let anyone touch my laptop," he chirps.
Skeptics Point to More Pressing Issues
This is only the beginning for OLPC in India, which has given its Indian partners a total of 500 XOs for distribution. Chowdhury says that many Indian state governments and NGOs have shown interest, but they have yet to approve budgets for the XO, which is more expensive than originally advertised. The XO, when conceived, was supposed to cost $100. Partly because the laptop is still made in fairly limited quantities, the cost of the XO in India is around $200. Negroponte expects that with increasing volumes, the XOs will actually sell for $100 in three years. "It becomes viable only if you build an ecosystem around the laptop. You have to train teachers and build a curriculum around the XO," says Nitish Rane, of the Swabhimaan NGO that runs schools in rural Maharashtra state. Rane has already deployed 100 XOs and plans to buy 500 more by yearend.
Not everyone is as gung-ho as Rane. There are many who believe that there are other big issues confronting Indian education that need to be addressed first. India's spends 3% of its gross domestic product on education, compared with 4% in China. There's a paucity of teachers in India, many schools lack basic facilities like toilets, power outages are frequent, and many subjects are not taught because there are no instructors. "Technology has a limited role to play when you are short of funds," says Atanu Dey, chief economist at tech innovation company Netcore Solutions. Negroponte is not deterred. He claims that despite the problems, the XO has an important place in the hierarchy of India's education needs. "The laptops can fast-track traditional methods," he says.
It is still early to say how the OLPC effort will pan out in India. With five state elections around the corner, some politicians may be reluctant to back this unusual project. Satish Jha, the head of OLPC India, says that he will tap corporations with a social conscience and industry bodies like the Confederation of Indian Industry to fund and promote the XOs. There's a tieup with Amazon.com (AMZN) to display the XO on its front page.
The demand for the XOs is also coming from unusual quarters in different sectors. These include insurance agents, census representatives, and even rural outsourcing units eager to deploy the sturdy, easy-to-use laptops. No deal, says Negroponte: He is committed to providing the laptop only for education.