Software costs more than a year\'s salary for many Africans

By   |  January 14, 2004

Buying proprietary software for many African users can cost them the equivalent of a year or more\’s income. This is according to Rishab Ghosh, programme leader at Infonomics at Maastricht University, who was speaking at the Idlelo Digital Commons conference in Cape Town, South Africa today.

Ghosh, a founder of the online Internet peer-review journal First Monday, said that a typical setup of Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office, costs around $560 in the US. In a country such as Kenya, where the annual income per person is $371, buying the same package would equate to 18 months worth of salary for many Kenyans. In Ghana this figure jumps to more than two years\’ income for the average Ghanaian.

Ghosh said that without free and open source software – software that is free to access and ships with its source code for anyone to see – \”the broad socio-economic changes long promised by ICT (Information and Communications Technology) would largely be limited to a tiny elite.\”

Ghosh said there are three primary reasons for African countries to be using open source. The first is the cost benefits offered by the software. He said that often the case is made for or against open source software on the basis of a total-cost-of-ownership analysis(TCO). In developed countries the \”costs for maintaining, supporting and integrating software accounts for up to 85 percent of the overall cost of deploying software. The actual costs of licensing can account for as little as five percent of the overall costs and with hardware accounting for the rest.

Ghosh said, however, that in developing nations the equation is often substantially different not only because of the weaker buying power of many African countries but also because the cost of labour in many countries is also substantially lower.

\”In countries where labour costs are low its percentage of the TCO is substantially smaller and the proportion spent on licensing proprietary software is much higher.\”

Ghosh said that a package that costs $560 in the US would have a relative cost of $53000 in Kenya and as much as $73000 in Ghana when based on on the annual income per person in the country.

\”There are many barriers to ICT empowerment in developing countries including the cost of hardware. Proprietary software licenses are an additional barrier but with free and open source software they can be avoided. Cost in the developing world really does matter,\” said Ghosh.

Ghosh said another reason that African nations should be considering open source software is for the skills advantage it offers. \”These are not just the user skills learned but also the skills learned by participating in the free and open source community. The barriers to entry to these communities are very low with open source software,\” he said.

More importantly, he said there was a substantial skills transfer within these communities which can contribute to the development of local software industries. \”The open source community is like an informal apprenticeship. Members of these communities contribute their time and effort for free … and the cost is not borne by employers.\”

He said developers in these communities were often passing on the skills they had to others in the community that are still learning their way around software. \”In a way this means that skills are (often) being transferred from those that could afford formal training to those that cannot. Globally this represents a skills transfer from nations that have training resources to those that do not.\”

Ghosh said the third reason that Africa should consider open source software is because of performance, flexibility, and the ability to be locally customised.

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