Free software in Africa – 2005 a year for real growth

By   |  January 11, 2005

How did 2004 rate for the growth of free and open source software in Africa? What do you think were the major achievements of the year and how much progress was made?

A lot has been achieved although it is difficult for FOSSFA to gauge the depth of the success. We (at the Secretariat) feel that last year was an extremely successful year which started with hosting IDLELO1 in Cape Town and a horde of other meetings, product launches and training related to FOSS in Africa and overseas where we were very well represented. Our mailing lists also experienced growth in terms of subscriptions and quality of issues discussed. We can safely conclude that FOSSFA has established itself adequately to command respect among all ICT stakeholders. Thanks to our traditional partners USAID, HIVOS, UNECA, INWENT and others who helped us succeed in 2004. We have also managed to build alliances with other FOSS movements in other regions such as the International Open Source Network, Free Software Foundation, OneWorld and others. FOSSFA was also invited to participate in the EU FOSS Workshop at the Hague.

Importantly, a parallel FOSS advocacy movement in Francophone Africa is gaining momentum with the first big FOSS conference — dubbed RALL 2004 — being held in Burkina Faso which attracted the attention of the governments of many Francophone countries. The conference was organised by FOSSFA\’s partner in Francophone Africa, Association Africaine des Utilisateurs de Logicieles Libre (AAUL) which is co-ordinated by a FOSSFA member, Pierre Ouedraogo. (For more information visit http://aaul.logiciels-libres.org/).

Q: And 2005? Do you feel that FOSS is closer to realising mass popularity than last year or do you think there are still many foundations to lay?

We are indeed very close. Word has penetrated all over Africa of the merits of FOSS. That is why we now intend to start documenting best practices in Africa for peer review. It is now time for African countries to exchange ideas on policy and implementation. This is in harmony with our 2005 plans which basically aim at entrenching FOSS business models all over Africa.

Q: What are Fossfa\’s plans for 2005? What events will you be participating in or hosting and where will you be focusing your energies?

In 2005 we will be working on our enabling phase as stipulated in the FOSSFA Action Plan. This revolves around 5 primary actions:

– Consolidate support capacity

We aim to ensure proper mobilisation of existing capacity and build the necessary capacity where successful trial implementations can be replicated. Establish and co-ordinate training institutions to facilitate the use of FOSS solutions. Sensitise governments and stakeholders through flag-flying initiatives like IDLELO 2006.

– Development of FOSS utilisation policy

Planning to convert to FOSS should be clearly indicated in IT plans of national and provincial government departments. FOSS plans should be integrated to NICI plans and the FOSS community should participate in the African Development Forum (ADF). The Foundation should also spearhead policy analysis and research in this area.

– Creation of a level playing field

The Foundation will work with other IT organisations to work towards the reduction of barriers through the adoption of open standards and fair specifications and integrate FOSS into public infrastructure.

– Communication

We also plan to develop a comprehensive FOSS communication strategy that will ensure optimal knowledge and understanding of, and commitment to FOSS. The strategy is to target the political level, departmental management, IT professionals and computer users in general.

We aim to enhance FOSSFA\’s Web presence and physical presence at all commercial trade fairs, build partnerships with the media and develop FOSS info packs, fact sheets and CDs.

Q: Comparatively, how would you rate the adoption of FOSS in Africa compared with the European market and the Americas?

Almost on a par. Because of the community nature of FOSS, bigger economies do not have \’bigger\’ advantages when it comes to adopting FOSS. Once education has gone through to decision makers then adoption becomes easier. Though governments in Brazil, some parts of Asia and Europe have already implemented FOSS, so have some African countries. The decision by Tunisia\’s new government to create a new ministry called \”Secretariat of State to the Minister of Communication Technologies, in charge of Information Technology, Internet and Free Software\” gives Africa a new hope in entrenching FOSS when we start learning best practices from Tunisia.

Q: What do you see as the challenges FOSS still has to overcome, particularly in the coming year?

We still need reasonable support from African states. There is also the misnomer that free means cheap software that should not be invested in and the stigma that free software compromises software security. The gap will also widen in exchanging knowledge between Francophone and Anglophone Africa because it is expensive to translate for knowledge sharing.

We also need to encourage more meaningful participation of young women in FOSS development and a need to counteract biased research findings which have contributed to many African Governments not adopting FOSS as fast as their counterparts in Europe, Asia and Latin America. We also need a uniform FOSS certification for Africa.

Q: In Fossfa\’s experience what type of FOSS adoption is the most commonly seen in Africa? (ie are the majority of users switching to FOSS using FOSS applications on a proprietary operating system, or are there significant numbers of users switching across to a FOSS operating system and FOSS applications?)

Without a doubt, there is more FOSS applications running on proprietary operating systems than those running on FOSS distributions. Our main problem is to overcome support and maintenance problems. Many local derivatives of FOSS distros have been developed. e.g. IMPI, NGOMA, UBUNTU, OPEN LAB etc but the problem remains that such distros must be

entrenched, especially in government, to create the necessary revenue to service and maintain their upgrades and further development. So far, many of our governments (66% of the entire ICT industry in a country) are yet to give this type of

software a level playing field which has mostly been attributed to lack of enough advocacy and biased research finding that have been favouring large multinational proprietary software houses.

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