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Jhai PC: Low-cost computer links villages to the Web

Rugged Internet portal designed for Laos now attracts interest in 65 countries.

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He made a specialized, miniature mainboard and combined it with off-the-shelf parts and an industrial-steel case sealed with caulk and gaskets to keep out floodwaters and humidity. The streamlined machine had no hard drive, relying instead on flash drives to store information, and it made use of small LCD panels that consumed less power than standard monitors. Hooked up to a regular keyboard, telephone, and mouse, the resulting metal cube roughly resembled its store-bought contemporaries, but it ran on one-tenth the power and was built to last for 10 years.

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Laotian authorities killed the project months later. But after seven years, the government warmed to the idea – and technology has caught up with Felsenstein’s vision. All the parts necessary to build a Jhai PC, including small mainboards, are readily available. That’s good news, says current Jhai designer Stan Osborne.

"Jhai doesn’t want to be in the computer manufacturing business," he says.

Instead, the project aims to have local manufacturers assemble the machines, choosing components – waterproof or dustproof cases, for example – suited to their community.

"We help villagers help themselves," says Vorasone Dengkayaphichith, the Laotian IT specialist who implemented and manages Thorn’s Phonsavad project. "They decide what they want to do in their village."

The potential perils of scaling up
That sense of ownership can be a problem for larger initiatives like OLPC and Classmate, says Laura Drewett, coauthor of Wireless Networking for the Developing World and a veteran of technology development projects in Romania, Mali, and other countries.

These sweeping programs sometimes "don’t talk to community members – don’t involve them," says Ms. Drewett. "If people in the community don’t understand what technology will bring them, they’re not going to use it."

With its self-help success in Phonsavad, Jhai is now in talks to set up similar systems in about 22,000 villages in India, Vietnam, Ghana, and elsewhere.

It’s a potentially tricky prospect for a program that began as one specific response to one specific village’s needs, according to Eric Rusten, director of new ventures at the Academy for Educational Development’s Center for Applied Technology.

"The reason smaller-scale projects do better is because they’re smaller scale," says Mr. Rusten, who doubts whether it’s possible to scale up the personalized attention Jhai promises and to keep its emphasis on financial sustainability. "The challenge is that most institutions, like schools, aren’t businesses. In some places, there’s no way to generate revenue," he says. "Not everyone is an entrepreneur."

Thorn isn’t concerned. As he lines up funding from donors and investors and prepares to send thousands of PCs out into the world, his only fear is that larger-scale and less community-driven projects will fail.

"So many people in the developing world are used to ‘developed’ people coming in and saying 'we're going to do X,' " Thorn says. "I'm worried that doing it that way is going to leave so many people disappointed."