Out of Africa: Ultralow power PCs

Africa's electricity shortages are getting the attention of some very clever desktop computer designers in San Francisco -- at an innnovative technology and development organization called Inveneo.

I first encountered Inveneo's marvelous low-power PC in a dusty, poor village in Rwanda, the country made infamous by the 1994 ethnic genocide and then famous by the Hollywood blockbuster film, "Hotel Rwanda.". Late one afternoon, I visited an Internet cafe -- a small shop where people pay about a dollar an hour to send emails and search the Web. Instead of a normal bulky, power-hungry computer, I found a small, simple and energy-efficient one.

Indeed, the electricity footprint of this PC was unbelievable small: a mere six to eight watts, many times less than a normal computer.

The power requirement is so low that a simple solar device, costing less than $500, can drive this computer for eight hours -- day after day.

More than a year passed before I met the talented people who devised this computer. The other day, I went to the offices of Inveneo, whose staff hang out in a scruffy building in the trendy but still-funky "South of Market" neighborhood. There I met Robert Marsh, Inveneo's engineering guru, and the group's charismatic chairwoman, Kristin Peterson.

In the 1970s, Marsh was a founding member of the legendary Homebrew Computing Club, a font of creativity for what became the PC industry in Silicon Valley. Marsh designed the Inveneo PC using off-the-shelf parts. they are cheaper of course. He chose an ultra-low-power AMD chip-set and a low-power flat-panel monitor. "I tested a ton of them," Marsh recalls, "until I got it right."

Inveneo sells the PC for $469. First released about a year ago, the computer is usually purchased by foreign donors, supporting one of the dozens of African partners that Inveneo works with to expand technology expertise in the region. To date, about one thousand of these PCs are being used in Africa.

"The benefits are various," says Peterson, who travels often to the region. "These computers work in areas where electricity is undependable, or maybe there is no electricity."

Even in African cities, "there is heat, dust and humidity," she adds. "These are punishing environments for computers."

By going against the grain of the computer industry -- where ample electricity is taken for granted -- Marsh was able to conceive of a novelty -- that makes perfect sense in the sub-Saharan.

Today, Inveneo's PCs are assembled in the U.S., so the obvious next challenge is to bring assembly closer to Africans. That will require more training and resources in the places using these computers. And that reminds Peterson of a central insight that animates her work in human development: "Technology alone isn't enough."

[For more about Inveneo, watch this clip from CNN]


Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.