What with fancy computers, MP3 players, cellphones and the rest, “high technology” is usually regarded as a plaything of the world’s economic elite. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Some of the same engineers who make products for the world’s wealthy are also working on radically simplified versions of the same tools for use by the world’s very poorest. Their goal is to make technology a cause, not a consequence, of economic development.
Consider the personal computer. The average desktop machine these days has, at $300, become so inexpensive that price alone isn’t the barrier it once was to large quantities of them existing in the developing world, especially as gifts of donor countries.
Those PCs, though, all assume the existence of a reliable and clean supply of electrical power — a wild luxury in many of the world’s poor rural areas.
The Jhai Foundation computer, though, uses less than a third of the power of the latest Dell. It’s designed to be hooked up to whatever power supply happens to be handy, which often is someone sitting next to it, peddling away on a stationary bicycle attached to a generator. It costs about $200.