Field Stories

One to one computing in Ethiopia

The notion of transforming education through one-to-one computing is currently a hot topic across Africa. Initiatives are underway in various countries including Nigeria, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Ghana. But is one-to-one computing really possible for every child, and is it the most appropriate and cost effective use of resources? After a lively session at the recent ONLINE EDUCA conference in Berlin, David Hollow a founding director of Jigsaw Consult in England examines the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative in Ethiopia.

There are 33 million children out of school in sub-Saharan Africa. The number of children out of school has stopped decreasing, and it is now likely there will be more children out of school in 2015 than there are today. Such a situation clearly warrants radical action. We have a shared conviction that technology has a role to play in helping provide the education that is so urgently required. There are many initiatives, one-to-one computing amongst them, claiming to be the solution to educational challenges in Africa.

One notable example of one to one computing in education is that of OLPC in Ethiopia, where for the last three years a pilot scheme has been underway in five different schools with 5900 laptops. In Ethiopia 2.7 million children of primary school age are not in education. There is an average of 59 primary school pupils for every teacher, and educational resources such as textbooks are in incredibly short supply.

At the Royal Geographical Society in London in May 2011, I listened to a talk by Nicholas Negroponte, founder of OLPC, where he spoke about their pilot programme in Ethiopia. Having worked myself in the schools that he was using to illustrate how laptops are currently revolutionising education, I became curious.

Negroponte gave anecdotes that justified a specific course of action. He suggested that in Ethiopia most of the children given laptops learned not only how to use them but how to become programmers. He then went on to explain how the positive impact that the laptops had on education was inevitable, that the only valid question was that of whether the laptops could be afforded.

The idea that most children who had received laptops in Ethiopia could undertake sophisticated programming is a long way removed from the reality that I encountered. Whilst many children enjoyed playing on the laptops, there was limited, if any, integration into the classroom routine. Most teachers objected to the way the laptops were distracting the children, leading to some of them banning laptops from the classroom entirely.

My experience regarding OLPC in Ethiopia would suggest that the rhetoric does not match the reality. The aspiration for a laptop for every child and the transformation of education makes it tempting to ignore the lived experiences of students and teachers.

The harsh reality in Ethiopia is that finances for education are limited: What is spent on one initiative is, by implication, not spent on another initiative. So how do we decide how to quantify educational value? How do we decide if laptops are the most cost effective way to provide good quality education in Ethiopia?

If the One Laptop Per Child initiative were to have achieved its aim of ensuring that every primary school child in Ethiopia received a laptop, then the total basic cost (including distribution, training and maintenance) would have been approximately 2.4 billion USD. Estimating that the laptops might last five years, this equates to a subsequent annual follow on cost of 297 million USD (total cost of ownership of each laptop multiplied by 1/8th of national enrolment). In the first year, this would constitute 214% of the national primary education budget. Therefore, to provide a laptop for every child in primary school, it would be necessary to spend no money on teacher salaries, textbooks, electricity, infrastructure or any other educational resources for over two years.

In contrast, the price of a textbook in Ethiopia is 0.5 USD (c. 8 ETB). Textbooks are in short supply, and many children attending school cannot access any. Providing every primary school child in Ethiopia with a full set of textbooks would cost 38 million USD. Assuming that the books and laptops would have comparable durability, then providing every child in primary school with a textbook for every subject would require approximately 1.5% of the money required for every child to have a laptop.

This illustration should not necessarily lead us away from promoting one to one computing in Africa. But it should provoke us to consider carefully our approach in a context of limited financial resources and prioritise integration with pre-existing educational infrastructure. If education is the ultimate goal, then additional options should also be considered: One appropriate choice might be textbooks for every child; another appropriate choice might be laptops for every teacher!




  1. Initially we found the idea of having a tablet for every child – of course – quite nice. But in the end when you see that the production of these tablets is not a charity act but a good way to earn more profit for the western manufactures we really doubt the final success. So we rather help as a company by producing films and content on a non profit basis for european companies like Fraunhofer for their african projects. Best Uwe Engel

  2. The project is interesting but it is far from ” to be realized”. Priority should be given to the provision of text books and creating awareness about the benefit of the laptops for the teachers and the kids. Probably, ”some laptops for many” kind of project would be appropriate than going for one-to-one, which is not cost effective.

  3. OLPC initiative is good. When working in larger scale and where financial constraints are there text books comes in first place.
    If there is no bread then why go for a burger.

  4. This is an excellent example of what I call first-order thinking, that is, considering immediate consequences of an action, but not the consequences of those consequences. Here we see a purely short-term cost analysis with no consideration of benefits, that is, of the value of ending poverty and of achieving the other goals of the program. In particular, to assume that XOs and textbooks have similar durability, as though that is the only criterion for evaluation, is to reduce the discussion to triviality, even absurdity.

    It is true, and beyond sad, that Ethiopia can afford neither textbooks nor OLPC XOs out of its current budget, particularly when you know, as some of us do, that Ethiopia is mired in the worst kind of rote memorization teaching, and that XOs plus teacher training can break the country out of this pattern. See, for example, EduVision: “Ethiopia Implementation Report Sept-Dec 2007” February 2008

    But to say that XOs are inappropriate for Ethiopia because of the current budget limitations is to ignore the Return on Investment for both textbooks and XOs. Education has a higher ROI than any other legal activity in purely monetary terms, while ending poverty is in fact priceless.

    Where can Ethiopia raise 300 million USD annually? I don’t know, but I consider it shameful that other nations have not offered to fund an adequate education for all Ethiopian children, indeed for all children. A complete OLPC program would come to something like $50 billion annually for the entire billion or so children around the world, with current technology. Not quite peanuts, but far less than governments have pledged for decades, with no follow through. What is lacking, therefore, is not money, in a 60 trillion USD global economy, but political will.

    I have a strong suspicion that organizing Ethiopia’s coffee trade better could make all the difference for funding (via increased tax revenues on increased trade) a wide range of government programs in education, health, and much more. Ethiopia grows some of the finest coffee in the world, particularly its Yergacheffes, and has essentially no international branding.

    Be that as it may, I invite you to consider Bangladesh, which has digitized all of its textbooks and is preparing to build its own school computer, the Doel. I believe that Bangladesh has made a different economic and financial analysis than you have, taking a few more factors into account. You might want to ask them about it, and also Peru, Uruguay, Rwanda and other countries that have given every one of their children an XO, or are planning to as soon as possible.

  5. Fiona Wallace

    Always good to read substantiated crits of ICT initiatives. For OLPC to succeed in schools, I believe the following 3 criteria are crucial:
    1. Rigorous, appropriate training of teachers in the use, intergration and benefits of the laptops
    2. Public-private partnerships to ensure that funding is injected into the programme from outside of limited state coffers
    3. Open source textbooks are integrated into the software offerings of the laptops

  6. rwagasana gerard

    Dear educators, I am in Rwanda where we have also the OLPC project in which I took part some time.
    To be realistic, with hundreds thousands children in schools, I do not believe possible to equip every child with this notebook. Our countries cannot afford such expenses.
    The vision and the idea are very good, but it is still an ideal.
    Of course it is possible, as it is being done by now in some countries, to begin with some few schools. But I am afraid that doing so, we are creating a something … divide between schools.
    What if, as suggested below, begin with textbooks for all children (and even so, it is huge money to spend for poor nations).

  7. one to one lap top is good ,we in Zambia in oer4 school have been trained and use interactive teaching methods using digital equipments such as net books , desktop computers, notebook , tablets, cameras, projectors, calculators as tools in the ICT lessons and any other subject that is taught interactively. one to one laptop is every good ,cost less time for sourcing the educational materials that one has to teach as it provides wider research on the best form of quality learning as well as best learning environment for any learner.

  8. No! not yet.

    First textbooks for every child and fair salary for every teacher! Laptop for every teacher is a luxury with the current situation of Ethiopian teachers. The idea of one laptop for one child or teacher was good, but, to use the laptop, first we have to live.

    Thank you.

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