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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 November 2007, 09:05 GMT
Africa's digital poster child
By Jonathan Fildes
Science and technology reporter, BBC News

Pupils at Jabi Lake

There is a race to connect the next billion people worldwide and one of the main arenas where it is being played out is Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa.

In the West African nation, home to more than 140m people, humanitarian efforts rub shoulders with commercial schemes to bridge the digital divide.

The Ministry of Education is currently evaluating schemes from Microsoft, Intel and the One Laptop per Child group to give the country's 30 million school-aged children access to computers.

Although no decision has been made about which, if any, it will buy into on a large scale, some schemes are already starting to move ahead.

"There is a commitment to roll out our project in 200 schools," said David Ibhawoh of Intel.

The chip manufacturer is promoting its Classmate PC (CMPC) in Nigeria to various organisations as well as government and has set up a pilot project at Jabi Secondary School on the outskirts of Abuja to show off the technology.

Classmate pupils give their views

The project is the first in Africa and is part of Intel's World Ahead programme aimed at bringing technology to people around the world.

"When we started this program there was no infrastructure. The classroom did not have any desks and chairs," said Mr Ibhawoh, who helped set up the Jabi School trial.

Today, the situation couldn't be more different.

The school is in the process of an extensive building programme. The original school buildings are all now topped with gleaming aluminium roofs and the orderly classrooms pack the latest technology.

"The pilot project consists of 280 computers, 8 teacher laptops, digital content, Wimax for internet access, and a repository where we can view content offline," said Dennis Etsuke, technical manager at the school.

In addition, each computer lab is equipped with an expensive interactive whiteboard.

The renovation has been paid for by the government and Intel, with the chip firm covering the majority of the costs of the technology.

High achievers

At the cornerstone of the project is the CMPC.

"There are three basic differences with a standard laptop," said Dennis Etsuke, technical manager at the school. "It is smaller; it doesn't have a CD-Rom drive and it doesn't have a hard drive."

Boy with classmate PC

"All of the PCs connect to the teacher's laptop," he explained. "The teacher can then broadcast her lecture and the pupils can respond to that."

Lessons at the school are very orderly and structured. The teacher introduces a topic on the white board and pupils take notes and do exercise on their individual Windows-based PCs.

"The curriculum has not changed but it has changed the way the children learn - it has really got them interested," said Mrs Adewumi Abiola, one of the teachers at the school.

"The laptops were introduced to just one class initially and when we compared them with another class that did not have [the laptops] we saw a great gap in their performances.

The headmistress of the school, Mrs Esther Odekina agrees.

"My students have improved greatly - each one scores now above 60%," she said. "My teachers have also benefited - most of them now are computer literate, including me"

Washing machines

At the moment only the oldest pupils have access to the laptops, but the school hopes to start moving them between different classrooms to give access to all 750 students.

Children carry Intel Classmate computers

In addition, the local community is benefiting from the school's internet access.

"Parents come here also to browse the internet for free in the evening," said Mrs Odekina. "Education is for all so we allow them to use it."

Entrepreneurs are also setting up around the school, piggy-backing on the wireless signal that floods the area, according to Mr Ibhawoh.

"There is a new business model where people browse the internet whilst having their car washed," he said.

Initially, he said, there were problems with spammers using the network, so now the school takes the details of regular users and provides them with a username and password for a small fee.

The money provides an additional revenue stream for the school.

Connection cost

Although Jabi is clearly a success some people questions whether the programme can be scaled up across the country.

At the moment Jabi School acts as the poster child for the Intel scheme in Nigeria and has clearly had a lot of money spent on it by both government and Intel.

Wimax aerial
Wimax covers the whole of the Abuja metropolitan area

Its pristine buildings, well resourced classrooms and tidy pupils stand in stark contrast to other schools we saw.

Nigeria has more than 20 million primary school children and more than 6 million in secondary school.

At the moment, each CMPC currently costs between $300 and $400

Intel will donate a further 3,000 CMPCs and has said the price will come down for large orders. In addition it has said it will train 150,000 teachers in the country over the next five years.

However, a large scale roll-out of the scheme to every child still represents a potentially huge investment for a country where, according to the World Bank, the Gross National Income per person is $640.

In particular, all net-based projects in Nigeria face high connectivity costs.

The 256 kilobits per second (kbps) Wimax connection at Jabi School, paid for by the government, currently costs $900 a month on top of $1500 for equipment.

Although costs are projected to come down for Wimax and other systems, they still remain a huge barrier to any scheme hoping to digitally unite Nigeria.

Digital bridge

Some have also questioned Intel's motivation for pushing the CMPC in Nigeria and claim that the programme is no more than an attempt by the firm to saturate a market before its competitors.

Children use Xo laptop

Earlier this year, Nicholas Negroponte, the man behind the not-for profit One Laptop per Child (OLPC) group, accused Intel of selling the CMPC below cost to drive him out of markets.

Professor Negroponte said he believed that Intel was doing it because the OLPC machine used a processor designed by the chip-maker's main competitor, AMD.

But since the feud, the two groups have united, although there is still little evidence of it in on the ground in Nigeria.

Mr Ibhawoh does not deny that there is a commercial element to the programme and that the firm will make money from the scheme but, he said, it was primarily about social responsibility.

"Who decides to train 150,000 teachers in one country, who decides to design a digital curriculum for kids around a country, who pays for that?," he said.

"Our goal is to connect the next one billion."

"For us it's not about who gets the market share - it's about how many people we are able to empower, how many people are able to bridge the digital divide."

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