The Jhai Project

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In the first week of January I wrote a post on the Jhai Foundation's remote IT project, a really ingenious effort to bring Internet connectivity to Lao villages via wireless networking, hand-crank generators, and low-wattage computers. Computers and the Net, explains the Jhai Web site, allow Lao rice growers and weavers to better price their products and expand their markets?they help the little guy tap into the globalized economy.The group was raising money to get the system in place before the monsoon season, and I promised I'd report back here on how successful their efforts were.

The happy answer is very. On Friday I spoke to Lee Thorn, chair of the board at Jhai, as he prepared to depart on Monday for Laos. He tells me that in the days following Jhai's DayPop Top 40 listing and the burst of links it reflects, the organization received around 150 donations totalling approx. $10,000—enough to put the first phase of the project into action. (For the entire project, they need another $15,000.)

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  1. Umm, I remember reading about this before, but I still don’t know… is this supposed to be irony?

    It reminds me of a speach I heard by then VP Al Gore here in New Orleans several years ago. The New Orleans public school system is in shambles. The buildings are in disrepair, the administration is incompetant and corrupt, and the illiteracy rate is staggering (even amoung graduates). Anyway, here’s Gore advocating spending *billions* of dollars to get every student wired to the internet. Shouldn’t the first priority be to get students able to read? I was sorely disappointed that mine were the only boos in the audience.

    I know that this Laos project will not cost billions, and that it will be funded by donations. But still, it begs the question, couldn’t these people get more benefit out of a different technology? Like maybe refrigeration? Or literacy?

    Will following rice futures on Yahoo really help? Are they going to sell their wares on ebay? Wouldn’t the best place to get information on pricing be… at the market?

  2. From a reading of their website, this technology is one facet of a larger project involving education, infrastructure, and health-care. The proposed network is one way that this group is working to meet some of the wants and needs expressed by the people living there.

    I think there’s a misconception that this is some kind of ill-fitting technology being imposed upon these people so the American Marketing Machine(tm) can get their kids hooked on playing Doom or something.

  3. Have you read the material on the project? Do you realize that the markets from which they need pricing information are hours if not days away from the villages? Can you not see the benefit of being able to get at that information quickly and easily before deciding whether it’s worth going to the markets?

    Did you notice that the technology will encompass telephone services over IP, as well?

    Did you realize that the villages do not have electricity, making refrigeration difficult? Why did you assume that the villagers are illiterate?

  4. Bryant,
    I did read some (but not all) of the material on the project. My rice futures/ebay comment may have been too sarcastic, but will the markets that they sell their wares in actually be on the internet with accurate and timely information? I’ve never seen a farmer’s market that recorded transactions and published them on the internet. Even my local newspaper’s classified ads section on the internet is neither accurate nor timely.

    I did notice that the village doesn’t have electricity and initially my response was going to be, “shouldn’t we get these people electricity first, before worrying about the internet.” I decided to give refrigeration as an example of the usefulness of electricity instead, partially because I saw that part of the project is to provide generators to run the servers, hubs, and computers. But, again, wouldn’t it be more benefitial to provide generators to power refrigerators or, heaters, or even, say, bilge pumps.

    As far as illiteracy, I didn’t assume they are all illiterate, but I did read this, straight from the Jhai site itself:

    ‘Many of the villagers whom Jhai is working with are low-literate and do not speak English, so e-mail won’t help them, the Internet is inappropriate.’

    I will concede on telephony over IP, that does seem worthwhile. But on a side note, I thought that 802.11b was useful for only a few hundred feet, at the most. Are these villages that close together?

  5. I’ve heard stories on BBC World Service about telecom improving the operation of markets in Africa, by
    allowing exchange of information about prices, etc.

    I mean, wouldn’t this suck: You’re a farmer. There are two markets you sell in, each a day’s travel away. You decide to sell product A in market B today. When you
    get there, you find that the price for product A in market
    B sucks today, and you should have brought product
    C, or gone to market A. Instead, you’re stuck getting
    a lower price, or selling less, and a day’s shot.

    This example is probably not *exactly* the problem being solved, but I think it shows, generally, how telecom can
    help.

  6. More valuable than pricing information they can get on the internet are weather forecasts, satellite images, etc.

    And 802.11b can be ‘repeated’ using pretty low-tech dishes, though I’m not sure if that’s what they’re doing.

  7. The maximum recorded range of 802.11b is … 300 *kilometres*. Of course, to do that took special antennae and boosted transmitters, but it demonstrates that WiFi is a reasonable tool for hooking up villages where there’s a clear line of sight between hilltops.

    And voice-over-IP telephony is a great idea. Compare the $400/village cost of the Jhai PC project with the cost of stringing copper wire to each village and you begin to see why this may very well be an extremely appropriate use of technology — assuming, of course, that basic needs like clean drinking water, food, and shelter are already covered.

  8. The situation for the farmer is worse than that: often times, they will sell to the middleman who owns the trucks, carts, or other transportation gear necessary to get their crop to market. This middleman might say “Oh, you planted product C. This is a bad year for C prices at the markets, and I can only give you (some pitifully small amount here).”

    Now, advanced telecom helps to shave the profit of the shyster middlemen by letting farmers know what the situation actually is, and how much profit said middleman is really making. It increases the negotiating power of the small farmer and at the same time makes the overall market more efficient, by providing accurate feedback from the consumers to the producers.

  9. Very quiet in this thread lately. More comments please.

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