By Jonathan Fildes
Science and technology reporter,
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.
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.
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."
"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"
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.
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
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.
Although Jabi is clearly a success some people questions whether the programme can be scaled up across
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.
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.
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.
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."