What started as a trickle three years ago in Uruguay is turning into a flood. That nation's decision in 2007 to purchase 100,000 ultra low-cost OLPC netbooks has created a domino effect across Latin America. Peru recently announced a deal to buy another 260,000 OLPC units for primary schoolchildren, bringing its total to 590,000. Argentina, meanwhile, took delivery of the first of 250,000 Intel Classmate PC laptops for technical high school students and the mayor of Buenos Aires announced an initiative to buy 190,000 laptops for primary school students. Brazil has also jumped in, launching a bid in February to acquire 1.5 million low-cost laptops. Latin America now leads the developing world in efforts to provide laptops for every student, with Uruguay becoming the first to give every child in primary schools their own computer for use at school and home. The Inter American Development Bank estimates that the number of children in the region covered by these programs will jump from 1.5 million to 30 million by 2015.
The move by Latin American governments to provide laptops to the region's children (and its primary schoolchildren in particular) is notable for several reasons. It marks an increased commitment on the part of these governments to raising educational performance, one of the factors many experts cite as a reason for Latin America's economic underperformance relative to Asia. It also signals that the region's governments are serious about building a tech-savvy workforce in order to better compete for knowledge economy jobs in the future. Yet these deals also demonstrate that governments believe that providing children with these computers will at the same time build local technology ecosystems in the here and now. All of these elements mean more work and skill development for local companies and workers.
These developments also present an opportunity for multinational firms. One-to-one computer deployments are enormously complex undertakings, requiring comprehensive plans for capacity building, teacher training, technical support and repair services in order to succeed. Many countries hope to build that capacity locally, but in the short term companies willing to partner with local enterprises might find numerous opportunities to provide products and services. Getting in early might also position firms for the future, when the tech-ready workforces produced by these programs enter the consumer base and workforce. Spotting the early signs of a blossoming tech economy can pay big dividends down the road.