Mexican Billionaire Donates Laptops

Billionaire Carlos Slim said he doesn't care if he is the world's richest man and promised to donate hundreds of thousands of laptop computers to Mexican children.

The Mexican telecom mogul pledged Thursday to donate 250,000 low-cost laptops to children by the end of the year and as many as 1 million in 2008, saying "digital education" holds the key for Mexico's poor.

Slim is listed by Forbes as the world's second-richest man with holdings worth US$53 billion (euro38.79 billion), but some financial analysts say he may have overtaken Microsoft founder Bill Gates as the world's richest.

Speaking to foreign correspondents on Thursday, Slim said the ranking meant little to him.

"That's water off a duck's back to me," Slim said. "I don't know if that [the ranking] is correct, if I'm first, 20th, or 2,000th. It doesn't matter. It's all the same."

"I think that what's important is to see that a professional or business activity isn't incompatible with personal or family life," he said.

He also expressed no interest in competing with Gates in philanthropy, saying he hoped their efforts would "complement each other." The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has channeled its efforts into reducing hunger and fighting disease in developing countries.

Slim said he wants to focus on building specialized preschools, handing out computers and supporting health care.

He said he would devote about US$70 million (euro51 million) this year to the low-cost laptop program. With an estimated cost of US$250 (euro183) to US$300 (euro220) per machine, Slim would have to devote US$300 million (euro220 million) to reach a goal of 1 million per year. He predicted, however, that costs for the machines would fall further.

Slim, who controls Mexico's largest fixed-line telephone company, Telefonos de Mexico, or Telmex, said the plan would initially put the laptops in libraries and schools, which would eventually give them outright to students.

"The scheme in public libraries would be for them to lend them out, like books," he said, noting his companies would help set up wireless networks for the machines to connect.

He said that within four years, he wants to build about 100 "early stimulation" preschools to give poor children training at a young age in math, language and computers.

He said the world economy is experiencing "a stage of world euphoria" of easy credit, and that Latin America should take advantage of that to invest in infrastructure.

Slim said there is no conflict between his role as businessman -- in which he has been criticized for holding a near-monopoly control over the telephone market -- and philanthropist.

"The best investment one can make is to reduce poverty," he said, noting that wealthier citizens are better consumers.