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

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

Apichart Weerawong/AP/File
Lee Thorn: In this 2003 file photo, the head of the Jhai Foundation speaks into a walkie-talkie while testing Internet access in Ban Phon Kham, Laos. Village officials look on.

In the small Hmong village of Phonsavad in Laos, three hours upriver from the nearest road, the Jhai PC is a portal to another world. Built to withstand monsoon rains and extreme temperatures and linked to the Web by satellite, the tough computer brings villagers weather reports, current prices for their rice crops and weavings, and contact with relatives living abroad.

It comes with a communications suite that both literate and illiterate villagers can use and will eventually host a videoconference kit for checkups with doctors. The computer costs about $200 and can charge its battery from a generator powered by pedaling a stationary bike.

All of this would seem to put it in the company of One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), the Intel Classmate, and other high-profile, low-cost PCs targeting the developing world.

But the Jhai PC is the product of a relatively small nonprofit in San Francisco, the Jhai Foundation, and a friendship between Jhai founder Lee Thorn and computer engineer Lee Felsenstein.

What sets their Jhai PC project apart – and has quietly garnered interest from 65 countries – is that it expects something in return: financial sustainability.

"There are tens of thousands of dead computers in rural villages all over the world," says Mr. Thorn. "The real problem of sustainability is how do people make money off this [technology] so they stay interested in it for a long time. Otherwise it's just some white guy’s dream."

Jhai requires a 10-year plan from each community it works with. A local entrepreneur must come up with a business plan that will employ villagers, maintain the computers, and pay for Internet access and electricity. Jhai participates in the process, providing business training and support along with classes on how teachers can integrate the computers into local school curricula.

Instead of deploying the technology and letting the details sort themselves out, Thorn's program tailors the technology and its infrastructure to the community’s needs. "Jhai takes a bottom-up approach, while everyone else takes a top-down approach," says Mr. Felsenstein. "[It’s] a much more total view of the village’s needs."

The Jhai PC project and its unusual approach stem from Thorn’s commitment to Laos. As a naval serviceman in the Vietnam War, he’d helped load planes with 1,000-pound bombs meant for airstrikes on the country. Thirty years later, Thorn traveled to southeast Asia in search of reconciliation and found it through rebuilding rural Laos. Since 1998, his Jhai Foundation has helped Laotians secure medical supplies, build schools,and establish coffee farms and other businesses.

From napkin sketch to global network
In 2001, Laotian villagers came to Thorn with a new request: phone and Internet connectivity. Thorn turned to Felsenstein, the inventor of the first mass-produced portable computer, who then designed the original Jhai PC on a napkin in a Silicon Valley restaurant.

With funds from individual donors, the governments of Canada and Sweden, and the US State Department, Felsenstein assembled the first Jhai PC himself.

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.

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."

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