PC Designed for China’s Peasant Farmers

Friday, September 28, 2007

Visitors to the annual agricultural fair here this week were treated to something more than the corn harvesters and feedstuff pulverizers that usually grace such events.
LANGFANG, China ? Visitors to the annual agricultural fair here this week were treated to something more than the corn harvesters and feedstuff pulverizers that usually grace such events.

They got to gawk at an item that its makers hope will become the Chinese peasant’s next must-have piece of agricultural machinery: a $199 computer.

Lenovo, the world’s third-largest computer-maker and China’s best-known global brand, chose this northeastern town to launch its assault on the growth frontier for PC sales ? villagers in developing countries ? and start bridging the digital divide between urban and rural citizens.

To tempt farmers into high-tech territory, Lenovo executives explain, they have tried to make their machine easy to use, cheap and robust. But its key feature, they say, is its software, dubbed “Road to Riches,” that helps peasants search for agricultural information that will boost business.

Wang Shunxiang, a fungus grower and the first customer to buy the computer, thinks he can see the potential.

“If this helps me know more about market prices and find more dealers to sell to, it won’t take me more than a few days to make back the money I am spending,” he predicts.

Lenovo’s President for Greater China, Chen Shaopeng, sees profit in the “Tianfu” (Heavenly Prosperity) model too, as he eyes 250 million households in the Chinese hinterland.

“The rural market in China is huge,” he points out, “and computer penetration is practically zero. This is a totally new market to be explored.”

That novelty brings challenges: Electricity supplies are not always reliable in the Chinese countryside; phone lines reach only 47 percent of rural homes, according to government statistics; and even $199 is beyond the means of millions of peasants.

Lenovo’s new product will also be competing with another low-priced PC just launched by another Chinese producer, Haier.

“These are very much early days,” cautions Wang Jiping, an analyst with the U.S. research company IDC. “They are still at the investment and ground-laying stage.”

Still, the trend is there. While only 0.3 percent of China’s 162 million Internet users live in the countryside, their numbers are doubling every six months, according to the official China Internet Network Information Center.

Lenovo’s ambitions to tap this trend take the shape of a chocolate-box-sized computer that plugs into a TV screen, controlled by a touchpad keyboard and buttons laid out like a remote control.

Using the machine is more like watching television ? a familiar experience for most Chinese peasants ? than sitting in front of a computer.

Simple controls take the user around a range of functions from online-education and entertainment services to agricultural-information portals, and also allow a user to choose specific sites or send e-mails and instant messages.

The computer uses flash memory instead of a hard disk. There are no moving rotating parts, such as a fan or a DVD player, that might break down in rugged conditions.

But company executives are pinning their hopes on the software ? specifically tailored to peasant farmers’ needs ? to attract customers.

“In cities, people consume at home and produce at the office, so you have two different IT markets,” says Wang Nan, Lenovo’s head of new business development. “Farmers are not just consumers; and if you treat them like urban consumers, you miss something. They are willing to spend money to increase their production.”

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Source: Seattle Times (link opens in a new window)