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A solar-powered laptop in every pot is a key campaign promise of the man who would be Kenya’s president

Uhuru Kenyatta
AP/Ben Curtis
Uhuru Kenyatta’s campaign promises put laptops on par with universal healthcare.
By Christopher Mims
AfricaPublished Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Kenya’s in the middle of what could be the most important election in its post-colonial history—a real turning point for the entire country. And how is Uhuru Kenyatta, one of two leading candidates for president, drumming up votes? By promising free solar-powered laptops for children entering primary school.

Ever since the debut of the One Laptop Per Child project, getting robust laptops into the hands of children has been the rallying cry of technologists and politicians alike, despite the limited evidence that such  projects accomplish much. (A typical headline on this subject: “Why did One Laptop Per Child fail?“)

Samsung’s proposed solar-powered laptop would be aimed directly at emerging markets.

So what is Kenyatta thinking? Only about a quarter of Kenyans have access to electricity, and in rural areas electrification is just 12%—hence the desire to power these laptops with the sun. But Kenya is also a country with relatively good cell coverage, and as a result, a mobile banking and payments system that processes 31% of the country’s GDP and would be the envy of any rich country.

In some ways, Kenya is not unlike India, where the ministry of education aspires to purchase as many as 5.86 million low-cost computers for education. These tablets—known as the Aakash 2—cost as little as $45 and may represent the least-expensive solution for bringing computing and, more importantly, internet connectivity, to students in the developing world. Importantly, tablets of this kind can already connect to sluggish data networks using the GPRS standard, and given Kenya’s rollout of 3G and 4G networks, in urban areas at least, the country will have usable wireless connectivity.

Absent any specifications about how Kenyatta plans to pay for a rollout of laptops to school-age children—not to mention his other campaign promises, like universal health care for women—it seems likely that even if he wins, the promise of millions of Kenyans getting their hands on government-sponsored laptops could remain a fantasy. But that won’t stop the inexpensive tablets and notebooks being churned out by the factories of Shenzhen, China, from arriving in Kenya anyway.

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