One Laptop per Child Beats the Odds

When Nicholas Negroponte launched One Laptop per Child in 2005, he was variously called an idealist and an imperialist for his idea: a nonprofit education-based initiative to help the world’s poorest countries disseminate laptop computers to millions of children — at $100 per unit.

Three years later, you can call him effective. Production of OLPC’s specially designed, kid-friendly XO laptop — rugged, low-wattage, with handles for easy toting — began in November 2007. Today, OLPC has large purchase agreements in Uruguay and Peru, for a total of 1.7 million computers. There are also test deployments in Cambodia, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Haiti, Mongolia and Rwanda.

Lawrence Blau, a New York-based accountant who volunteered with kids in Cambodia, has seen the XO in action. “The children loved them and they were doing very creative things with them,” he says. “There was one girl, around 11 or 12, whose father had a fish farm. She’d walk one hour to the fish pond to turn on a light to attract bugs and she’d walk one hour back to the village.” Blau says the girl ultimately learned how to put a sensor on the light and use the laptop to turn it on and off.

“It was a miracle in the middle of a real third-world situation,” he says.

Making miracles hasn’t been easy for One Laptop per Child. In late 2006, OLPC chairman Negroponte realized he would need more than altruism to convince world leaders to buy computers for each of their countries’ school kids. So he engaged public relations company Racepoint Group to introduce his foundation’s mission to the world.

“One of our main objectives was to help shape global opinion,” says Jackie Lustig, svp at Racepoint.

Lustig says Negroponte had simply been going around by himself, from country to country, trying to convince governments to sign on. Although OLPC “informally coordinates” with the United Nations, Negroponte “realized that he needed a global communications program to open the doors for him, so that he could go in and make the sale,” she says.

To that end, Lustig and her team rolled out a series of public service announcements in the United States and Canada that illustrated OLPC’s goal to manufacture, distribute and deliver the laptops to participating countries. One PSA features Negroponte relaying a success story. As an image appears of a computer screen glowing in a darkened room, he says, “Families loved it because it was the brightest light source in the household. Talk about a metaphor in reality.”

Lustig says her early media relations efforts also entailed defending OLPC against corporations that saw it as a threat.

“It became clear to major technology companies — including Intel and Microsoft — that OLPC might actually be able to develop a laptop that could get into the hands of 1 billion children worldwide,” Lustig says. “First, they kind of pooh-poohed the whole project, but as they began to see that it could come to fruition, they suddenly got very concerned about their own market opportunity.”

Lustig says Intel had begun a campaign to discredit OLPC. “So the PR program had to help combat those attacks,” she says.

The giant chip maker joined the OLPC project in July 2007 and quit six months later amid friction over how aggressively it should promote its Classmate PC, another low-cost model designed for what it calls “emerging markets.”

Lustig says her communications efforts involved “exposing Intel’s tactics through the media.” She cites a May 2007 60 Minutes interview in which Negroponte calls Intel “predatory” for trying to sell its Classmate PCs to the same governments he had approached with his nonprofit laptops.