In the face of rapidly changing technological advancement, and the exorbitant cost of proprietary hardware and software solutions, which discriminate against Africa in attempting to participate in Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) for development, the need for Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) solutions has emerged. There is a global trend toward FOSS solutions, which have become viable, cost effective and sustainable options for Africa’s participation in ICTs for development. FOSS has therefore challenged our preconceptions on how software is produced and distributed.
Various reputable analyses have indicated that the software industry today generates revenues in excess of $300 billion annually. FOSS can be defined as a software that is distributed under the General Public License (GPL) with the main aim to prevent cooperatively developed software source code from getting ‘enclosed’ or being turned into proprietary, restrictively copyrighted software. FOSS software thus gives the user four distinct freedoms. The users are permitted to run the programme, copy the programme, modify the programme through its source code, and distribute modified versions to others.
The African continent is generally considered as developing. Africa’s ICT infrastructure is sparse and on the lower-side, characterised by small but modern ICT facilities in the urban areas and minimal or no ICT infrastructure in the rural areas. This coupled with the fact that a majority of the African population (about 90 per cent) lives in the rural areas makes the situation look gloomy, for it is one thing to have the most efficient and effective software applications, and have the necessary infrastructure and hardware to run the required applications. It is tantamount that a proper ICT infrastructure must exist before any meaningful usage is achieved.
FOSS usage has remained low in Africa as compared to other continents. Though on the other hand it has exhibited the highest growth rate and highlighted the growth potential needed to attract relevant attention from governments, the private sector (especially large multinationals) and non-government organisations.
FOSS has the potential to bring a collection of benefits to Africa ranging from the creation of anti-monopolistic and fair level playing fields in Africas’ IT markets, reduction of entry barriers, creation of better and well qualified ICT industry professionals and kick-starting the local software industry thus preventing foreign exchange drain. Africa will not need to rely heavily on software from developed countries.
According to the UNCTAD’s e-Commerce and Development Report 2003, developing countries have shown a growth rate of 45.68 per cent in the number of Internet users compared to 21.38 per cent shown by the developed countries. This serves to indicate that despite all these shortcomings, the opportunity to bridge the digital divide still exists. And FOSS is generally perceived to play a very important role in this endeavour.
In addition to the generic niches that FOSS has created for itself in the Internet and computer networking fields, it has also shown very commendable growth within the education sectors and the Civil Society Organisations (CSO’s). Non-government organisations involved in the education sector have used FOSS solutions to provide ICT in education and training to schools in Africa using Linux Thin Client Technology (LTSP). LTSP technology has the benefit of using minimal resources and relies on the stability of Linux based solutions. This has made the creation of sustainable education solutions feasible using donated computers from the developing countries and having them locally refurbished. This has created jobs and has greatly enhanced the learning experience. The dream to jump-start a software industry in Africa depends on the ability of regional engineering schools to produce dedicated FOSS developers.
The Free and Open Source Software Foundation for Africa (FOSSFA- www.fossfa.net), with a team of other partners has therefore embarked on a process to develop local education content. Urgent support is needed in this area.
FOSS based companies are also beginning to emerge in Africa and already two official Linux distributions/operating systems have been launched. These include Impi (www.impi.org.za) and Ngoma Linux (www.ngomalinux.com). Most of Africa’s population is illiterate or with minimal education. If any kind of technology is to succeed in Africa, it has to rely on local language communication. Several efforts have been made towards localisation and the development of local content. ‘Translate.org.za’ is a translation effort to make Linux and other FOSS based applications available in the 11 South African languages. Efforts to localise FOSS applications to Kiswahili in Kenya are underway. This will greatly increase the availability of FOSS based ICT solutions to the Africans.
Adoption of FLOSS by NGOs in East-Africa
The diffusion of openness
The aim of this research was to find out whether: OSS is a good alternative to the software currently used by Hivos partner organisations in East-Africa and in which way can Hivos stimulate the diffusion and adoption of this software by her partner organisations?
Results of field study
Respondents, familiar with OSS but not using it, mentioned several reasons. Some were afraid that the software is not compatible with software used by other organisations within their network. Some cited the problem of lack of adequate support for this software. For several organisations the advantages of OSS over the software they currently use are not very clear and therefore they do not see the need to spend time and money on a transition to other software. Finally, some respondents have the opinion that OSS is less user-friendly than the software they are currently using. But, all in all, a lot of organisations are enthusiastic about OSS and want to learn more about it.
Most of the visited organisations have a decent state of ICT. On average there are three computers for every four employees. However, this varies greatly. A little over 60 per cent of the visited organisations have some kind of local area network. Almost all of the partners have an Internet connection in their office, although the type and speed of connection vary greatly. Twelve out of the twenty-six organisations maintain a website and all of the visited organisations use e-mail.
Most of the software used is proprietary like Microsoft Windows, Microsoft Office, Adobe Pagemaker and CorelDraw. The most common reasons to use the operating system Microsoft Windows and the office suite Microsoft Office is, that it was pre-installed on the computer when the computer was originally obtained. Furthermore, most organisations do not know any alternatives to this software. The fact that this is the most widely used software also is important to the organisations. When asked about their opinion on the software they are currently using, most respondents are quite satisfied.
The costs associated with using software are very low for most organisations. Most of the organisations do not pay for using the software. Since there is not much control on the use of legal software, there is not much pressure on organisations to use legal software. Besides that, the prices to obtain legal software are very high, probably too high for a lot of the organisations visited. A lot of the organisations are not even aware that the software they use is illegal.
Most visited organisations possess the basic skills to use computers and the normal functions of the software on the computer. In several organisations there is someone with more advanced skills that can fix the more common problems.
However, when things go seriously wrong, almost all of the organisations have some kind of contract with a service- and maintenance-company that can help them in case of computer problems and also come by for regular maintenance. Unfortunately, both the quality as well as the price of these companies vary greatly.
When looking at the environment of the organisation, it can be concluded that in the big cities (Dar es Salaam, Nairobi and Kampala), there are people and organisations present who have good knowledge of OSS. However, outside the big cities, even services for the widely used Microsoft software can be hard to find, let alone services for OSS, so introducing OSS in these regions will be a lot harder.
The multinational companies and other ICT heavy-weights, who previously did not consider Africa of any significant economic value, have begun establishing offices and channel partners within the region in anticipation for the opportunities that FOSS will present. African governments have taken a keen interest in FOSS and this has contributed to a lot of background competition between proprietary and Open Source Software companies. However, some of African governments have not woken up to this fact and have signed Memorundum of Understanding (MOUs) with proprietary software vendor companies. This has greatly contributed to the death of locally based software development companies. However, governments like South Africa and Uganda have engrained FOSS technologies in their National ICT policies.
Several locally based FOSS companies have also thrived and have served the role of providing support and training for FOSS based products and services. Examples include Obsidian (www.obsidian.co.za) in South Africa, Circuits & Packets Communications Ltd (www.circuitspackets.com) in Kenya and Linux Solutions in Uganda (www.linuxsolutions.co.ug). Some universities in the region have also incorporated FOSS in their curriculum. Some examples include the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT- www.jkuat.ac.ke) and the University of Nairobi School (www.uonbi.ac.ke) of Computing and Informatics in Kenya. The Linux user community in Africa has considerably grown with 17 user groups from several countries. Though, initially the user groups might be formed by a band of techies, trends indicate that the lay user participation has increased due to the need of peer support.
The relevance of FOSS to Africa’s economic agenda is beyond question. The opportunity is there and it’s time to make use of it. FOSS solutions provide the opportunity for African software developers to contribute to the development of software, especially that which is tailored for the continent’s needs. This will create training and career opportunities, increase access to Information Technology solutions, especially those tailored for specific demands.
On a big scale, continued use of FOSS will bring significant cuts in national budgets. On a micro/personal level, more people would have access to an array of opportunities. This will contribute towards the vision of universal access to ICT solutions for Africa and the world as a whole. FOSS gives the opportunity to Africa to rise up to the challenge of becoming an information society.
Free and Open Source Software Foundation for Africa (FOSSFA)
FOSSFA is an organisation that supports and promotes open source software in Africa. It believes that open source solutions are viable, cost-effective and sustainable options for Africa’s participation in ICT for development. FOSSFA has its origin in the ICT Policy and Civil Society workshop in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 2002. The need for developing a framework for open source solutions was felt and so FOSSFA was formed. It was formally constituted in February 2003 in Geneva during WSIS Prep Com 2. The 53 member states of the Committee on Development Information (CODI), a unit of the Economic Commission for Africa endorsed FOSSFA as the open source foundation for Africa. Its secretariat has been established in Nairobi, Kenya. Among its various activities, FOSSFA has also compiled a collection of country best practices on FOSS usage around the world. FOSSFA is determined to develop local capacity and create jobs in Africa by developing an OSS market that will initially target the public sector in government, health and education through encouraging change of policies in African governments to adopt its use and research and development.