Science & Technology

High-Tech Bicycling

Grassroots globalization


Can the Internet improve the lives of rural villagers in Laos, where most still don't have access to telephone lines or electricity?

The San Francisco-based Jhai Foundation, dedicated to improving the social and economic lives of Lao through a variety of programs, believes it can. So do the villagers, who told the foundation they needed timely, accurate information about pricing in the market town of Phon Hong and the capital, Vientiane, in order to sell their surplus crops. Weavers also needed communication tools to coordinate, via voice and e-mail, with expatriate Lao to develop markets for their textiles and crafts. Finally, explains the Web site, villagers needed computers to perform simple business functions, such as spreadsheets and word processing.

Working with the foundation, design engineer Lee Felsenstein devised an ingenious system that uses wireless networking, low-wattage computers, and bicycle-crank generators to get locals in six villages online, despite the monsoon rains, high temperatures, and dusty air that make standard technologies untenable.

Although the Jhai Project's technical genius has attracted the most attention, another aspect of the foundation's work is worth noting. Co-founder Lee Thorn, who is now in Laos finalizing the first stage of the wireless system, operates on the principle that the locals themselves best know what tools they need to improve their lives. "We start with relationships," he explains at "We then develop projects based on cooperative visions. This logic of development is new."

It's also successful. Five years of technical and financial assistance, and a cumulative investment of $400,000, have produced results that the foundation values at $2 million in 13 different villages.