A computer for Africa, will it work?

KADUNA, Nigeria, 24 March 2006

APCNews interviewed Ochuko Onoberhie (34) in the Southern Kaduna state of Nigeria. The young man who studied engineering at the University of Benin is from the Fantsuam Foundation [1], an APC affiliated non-profit founded in 1996 in the city of Jos, Nigeria. From the outset, it was known that his group planed the development of a unique computer that could fight the heat, dust and take on the challenging power situation of rural Africa [2]. But Onoberhie reveals details around the ‘Solo’.

The new Solo computer is being developed in partnership with a group of software designers based in Great Britain. It is designed to get around the many challenges of operating in Africa, and Fansuam is now field-testing the latest prototype.

It is very tiny, just like a single card from the motherboard of a regular PC and comes with all the same ports and connectors as a PC. The most obvious difference is the wooden case. There are no moving parts to fail, the hard drive is replaced by a flash card and most importantly, it has been specially engineered to work on very limited power supply. A typical PC’s power consumption is 300 watts [equivalent to three 100 watts light bulbs], whereas a Solo’s, running with the help of a solar panel, is just 8.5 watts.

Where did it got its name from? The computer can be used on its own, without being connected to an electrical grid or power supply. This is why the people behind the project have coined it ‘solo’, meaning ‘alone’. Since it runs on very little energy, the name also plays on words in referring to "so low".

It is meant to take care of unique challenges in developing countries. One of these challenges is the issue of heat and dust that causes computer failure. Then, there is the issue of high humidity and high temperatures. Testing in harsh weather conditions is almost over. "It’s currently very close to production. Hopefully, in a few months, we should have a production version ready," he says. "The response has been tremendous", says Onoberhie. "Everybody is waiting for us to get it out."

"It doesn’t have any hard-driver with any moving parts. It works on eight-and-half watts. If you can afford a strong UPS [Uninterruptible power supply unit], you can be on for a very long time when the power fails," promises Onoberhie.

Explan [3] of the United Kingdom is Fantsuam’s technical partner. They are responsible for design. Although their input is not free of charge, there’s another side to the story. "We’re looking at the TCO [total cost of ownership] which we hope to be able to bring down. Currently, it would cost USD$ 100 a year, which to us is very cheap, when looked at against the other products in the market. This promises a life of 10-12 years," says Onoberhie.

"The only thing in between you might want to replace, is your battery. These are nickel metal hydride high-temperature batteries. They are the size of a triple A battery and stacked in two sets, in a box with an intelligent processor, which makes it hot-swappable… if needed when one is low on charge," he adds, optimistically.

What are its specs? The ARM processor is going to be at about 500 megahertz, with about 256 megabytes of memory and 2.5 gigabits of flash drive capacity. "It’s hoped that data storage will be more external than internal -thorough devices like the USB pen, and flash disks are envisioned. You could plug in a USB CD drive, which it supports. Maybe even find a way to power it externally, if it’s necessary," says Onoberhie.

The operating system is GNU/Linux based – Debian Woody – but the production version is going to be on Sarge [a recent release of the community-driven Debian distribution of the GNU/Linux operating system].

Even though a release date is not firmed up yet, it is expected that the Solo will be introduced in Africa to begin with and supported by Fantsuam in Nigeria.

1 http://www.fantsuam.org/

2 http://www.apc.org/english/news/index.shtml?x=1129563

3 http://www.explan.co.uk/hardware/solo.shtml

Author: —- (FN)
Contact: fn apc.org
Source: APCNews
Date: 03/24/2006
Location: KADUNA, Nigeria
Category: Free Software