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A PC for peasant farmers? China targets digital divide.

China's computermakers tap vast rural market with simple tools and local officials' support.

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"In cities, people consume at home and produce at the office, so you have two different IT markets," says Wang Nan, Lenovo's head of new business development. "Farmers are not just consumers … and if you treat them like urban consumers you miss something. They are willing to spend money to increase their production."

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So the "Road to Riches" suite offers easy one-button access to websites that provide information on crop raising, animal disease control, market prices, distribution networks, and other topics of interest to farmers.

Much of that information comes from government sources, and Lenovo has worked closely with the Chinese authorities in developing and launching its new product.

"The ability of Lenovo's countryside strategy to open up and enter deep into new markets also depends heavily upon support from local governments at all levels," explains a company publicity document.

"We hope local governments will improve the IT infrastructure and help find the right providers of agricultural information," says Mr. Chen. "If they can do that we can bring PCs to the villages and people will see the benefits."

Lenovo is especially dependent on the state-owned telecom companies to extend phone coverage, without which ADSL Internet access is impossible. "They are expanding into the countryside very fast and we will work with the telecom operators," says Chen. "Wherever they reach, we will reach there together."

The company also sees local governments as prime sales targets, and is currently negotiating the sale of 600,000 units to be distributed through the Chinese government's poverty alleviation program, according to Wang Nan.

Close cooperation between Lenovo and the government serves the interests of both sides, analysts say. The company reaches customers and can boast of fulfilling its corporate social responsibility by narrowing the digital divide between town and country, while "the government achieves its goal of disseminating high technology" more broadly, says Wang Jiping.

Just how much demand there is for this technology, however, remains to be seen. Lenovo is busy creating a market, through roadshows and educational advertising. How far they have to go was evident at the agricultural fair, where many peasants stopped by Lenovo's stand, but few actually took the keyboard into their own hands.

"It looks easy enough to use, but I'm afraid I'd break it," said Tang Shisheng, a dairy farmer, as he watched salesmen take the "Heavenly Prosperity" through its paces. "I've never really used a computer."

Yao Zhenghai, who grows corn and fruit, was more adventurous. Even though he had trouble figuring out how the keyboard worked, he thought he could master it eventually, and signed up to buy one of the first of the new computers when they start rolling off the assembly line next month.

"Even if I'm a peasant, I need to know what's going on in the world, and this will keep me in touch," he said, as he jabbed at the keyboard with a stylus. "Maybe this will help me find out what kind of crops I could grow to earn more money."

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