Skills deficit still dogs open source software in Africa – report

By   |  May 26, 2005

After close on two and a half year\’s research Bridges.org this week released the findings of its study into the use of free/open source and proprietary software in public computer centres. The report finds that while free and open source software(FOSS) is increasingly being used in community centres there are still many challenges for the widespread adoption of FOSS.

Chief among these are the persistent lack of open source skills, lack of awareness and the lack of relevant applications. The research finds that FOSS is often more successful in larger and well-organised projects while proprietary software is more appropriate to smaller installations where skills are limited to proprietary software.

Chief researcher and author Philipp Schmidt says that in Africa \”FOSS has been used with success in large, carefully-designed, well-implemented projects. However, its use in small, independent, remote computer labs – where technical skill are often low – has proven more difficult. By comparison, familiarity and experience with proprietary software are more widespread and lab managers are more likely to find help from a friend or colleague if they use the most common applications.\”

Schmidt also says that while free software is available free of license costs, in reality this is not always a distinct advantage for African labs, which almost never pay for the software they use because of donations and unlicensed copies.

However, he says, \”software choices can help reduce the cost of hardware, which constitutes the most significant expense in public computer labs. Specifically, the popular thin-client systems found in many FOSS labs can offer very good value for money, because they run on cheaper (usually older, and less powerful) hardware. When well-configured and installed on reliable hardware, these software systems also require little ongoing maintenance.

\”Overall, a few key obstacles characterise the software choice for public computer labs in Africa: labs lack awareness of the implications of software choices; staff do not have the necessary skills or time to investigate software options; labs cannot afford to buy proprietary applications or download FOSS applications from the Internet; and often local procurement channels are not available to provide information and deliver software.\”

Schmidt says perhaps the biggest challenge faced by public and community computer centres have very little to do with the software they use. With rare exception, he says, \”the current models for public computer labs in Africa are not self-sustainable, regardless of whether they are using free/open source or proprietary software. And subsidies are harder to come by as projects fail to deliver concrete social impacts.\”

Real benefits
The report says that while it is difficult to resist the appeal of concepts like information sharing, collaboration, and freedom of knowledge – which form the foundation of the free and open software movement – in Africa, ICT is a means to an end that is most valuable when it supports social and economic goals and improves the lives of its users and community.

\”After all, what is the value of computers in communities that lack clean water and struggle to provide basic education to their children, unless these computers can be integrated into strategies that will ultimately improve living conditions? Sustainability plans linked with the effective delivery of social services could make public computer labs worth subsidising over the long term,\” says Schmidt.

Unfortunately one of the key elements needed to make public centres more meaningful to users – particularly much needed software applications – are still lacking, despite high-level and governmental support for the use of free software. \”If proprietary software vendors pay closer attention to the practical problems facing public computer labs, and build on the commitment to deliver on social and development goals, their value proposition for Africa remains high.

\”However, the momentum in Africa is currently in favour of FOSS, whose supporters are riding on a growing wave of enthusiasm based on successes in other developing countries. FOSS supporters in Africa have an opportunity to capitalise on this enthusiasm, but need to overcome serious hurdles to translate the
hype surrounding FOSS into tangible benefits. Above all they need to support communities of software developers who have the means and interest to develop and maintain locally relevant applications,\” says Schmidt.

The full report, Comparison Study of Free/Open Source and Proprietary Software in an African Context is available here

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