Lowering the barriers to innovation in Africa

By   |  December 14, 2004

People often argue about the short-term economic benefits of free software but the most important benefit to education and development in Africa is not the price. Any cost savings are merely useful side benefits. To illustrate the true benefits of free software I will use tertiary education as an example but the principles that I raise are equally true in school-level education as well as in business.

In his book The Future of Ideas Lawrence Lessig shows how the existence of an innovation commons has fostered innovation on the Internet. According to Lessig the Internet\’s very design built a neutral platform upon which a wide range of creative people could experiment without needing to obtain permission or pay license fees. Free software is like that, it allows anyone to experiment and innovate, it allows people who live in different countries, with different backgrounds, who speak different languages to come together virtually and express their creative talent in an unfettered manner.
Many of them create businesses out of their creativity that, like all creativity, is built upon the creativity of others.

Tertiary institutions are meant to be places where innovation thrives and a key benefits of free software is that it lowers the barriers to innovation in three critical areas.

Firstly, free software reduces the cost of participation in innovation. To break into the world of proprietary software development is a costly exercise, although many companies make their products available at no or low-cost under restrictive licenses to universities. However, with free software, the only cost is the computer hardware. Everything else can be done with no cost and no need to ask anyone for permission for anything.

Cost is important. But it is not the only barrier to innovation. The main barrier to innovation is the fact that source code for proprietary software is not available, or if it is available it is only available under terms that effectively mean that nothing useful can be done with it. It is only by doing useful things with software source code that a young developer really learns from what has been done before. Free software, on the other hand, is available with all
its source code, not only for study, but also for manipulation. If something innovative is produced from it, that innovation can be incorporated into the code and becomes available immediately to anyone using the software. Nothing is more empowering to a young developer than seeing her source code incorporated into applications used all over the world.

I have first hand experience of this benefit. Last year I went on a long journey to Kiev in the Ukraine. I decided that it would be a good opportunity to learn to write software in PHP, a common language used to build web applications. I took a book, the downloaded PHP documentation and several freely available tutorials.

More importantly, however, I also took numerous free software applications built with PHP, all of which I copied onto my laptop. By the time my plane landed back in Cape Town I was already able to write PHP at a pretty decent level of proficiency. The book and the tutorial helped, but having a virtually unlimited number of professionally written applications to study was the main factor that enabled me to move out of the sandbox quickly.

As another example, I am interested in how web application technology can allow the cross linking of information, even information and conversations that happen on different sites in different parts of the world. The educational potential of this kind of linking is tremendous. I decided to build an application using two common technologies — RSS and Trackback, — about which I knew nothing when I started. However, a wealth of open specifications, free tutorial materials, and most importantly source code from free software applications made it very easy for me to learn the necessary techniques. I was able to write the code on an aeroplane during a trip to Finland, and our educational application can now use these techniques to crosslink many different kinds of information. Without free software source code to study, the barriers to that small innovation would have been much higher.

The third factor lowering the barrier to innovation is the wealth of existing free software that can be used as the basis with which to build new innovations. It is not necessary to start from nothing in order to create an innovative new application or to build something in response to a business need. A small entrepreneur can develop a business without having to invest in a huge staff of software developers and maintainers. Indeed, there are many who have started small businesses entirely on their own using free software as a resource and expanding on it to create products that their customers need.

This is another area where I can share some experience. In the Free Software Innovation Centre at the University of the Western Cape we are building and application framework and then using it to create what we call the next generation e-learning system. There are many things that we need to do within the framework, such as connecting to databases, reading and writing XML files, creating webservices, etc. There are well established free software collections of code to perform some of those functions, so there was no need for us to spend months writing that code. We could start off a higher starting base and achieve our objectives much earlier than we could without free software. In one case, we needed to improve the code slightly to cater for multilingualization and that was contributed back to the application that we modified.

Innovation is not something that benefits only education. Most of the businesses that have sprung up or evolved around the Internet were able to develop because of the Intenet\’s innovation commons. In the business world, a clever mind can create innovative new products without having to invest in expensive proprietary software and software development tools.

Furthermore, the minds of some of the best programmers in the world are open for picking through the free software source code that is abundantly available on the Internet.

Free software allowed a clever South African entrepreneur named Mark Shuttleworth to build a multi-billion Rand company. Without free software, he would probably not have done it; the barriers to innovation would have been too high.

Coming back to tertiary education, universities in Africa spend a significant amount of money procuring software, none of it going into real innovation within the continent, and rarely are those institutions happy with the results of their procurement. Most of the price goes into multinational corporations, which is not necessarily bad, but it does not lead to the fostering of local innovation. There is therefore enormous scope for African tertiary education to partner with one another, as well as some of the more forward-thinking software development companies, as the University of the Western Cape is doing at present, to create new and innovative software that is designed to do what we wish it to do in our
environment.

With a few exceptions, universities throughout Africa are under-resourced and often under-staffed and lack internal critical masses of skills and expertise. Despite this situation, if one takes a scale that cuts across institutional and national boundaries, there are many opportunities to achieve critical mass through collaboration. In the area of application software, many universities struggle to meet the endlessly recurring license fees of proprietary software. Some have developed small, internal applications that they struggle to maintain and support. Often these applications are developed by graduate students, and support falls away when the student completes the degree and leaves the university. Such an approach is not sustainable, and is not a cost effective way to meet the challenges of providing business-level applications in the face of the high cost of proprietary software.

The challenge to tertiary education in Africa is to move beyond being simple consumers, to a point where they can support free software creation, and lead in the process of innovation. A free software collaborative approach involving many African tertiary institutions can create critical mass of free software, as well as creating a built-in mechanism to ensure future proofing and the creation of an ongoing community of support. Indeed, there may well be business opportunities for the SMME sector in Africa to support universities in their development and implementation of free software tools created in such a collaborative effort, thus creating value-added products that have export and revenue-earning potential. This is meeting the challenge to innovate, to find new ways of putting technology to work to make an impact on growth and development in a sustainable manner for Africa, and it is possible because free software lowers the barriers that stand it the way of innovation.

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