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Free software in Africa: Striding ahead

By   |  June 14, 2010

The Free Software and Open Source Foundation for Africa (FOSSFA) recently elected a new executive which will sit for two years until the Idlelo 5 conference in 2012. Tectonic spoke to the newly elected officials about the successes of the past, new challenges and hopes for the future.

From left: Milton Aineruhanga, Nnenna Nwakanma, Samer Azmy, Katim Touray

Could you please introduce the members of the the new executive and tell us a little about each?

In introducing the new FOSSFA exec, we begin by recognising the good work that the immediate past exec has done and we salute the courage and sacrifice of James Lunghabo Wire of Uganda and Christian Hervé Roland of Cote d’Ivoire.  The current exec is composed of Nnenna Nwakanma (Chair), Katim Touray (Vice Chair), Samer Azmy  (General Secretary) and Milton Aineruhanga (Treasurer).

Nnenna is a policy and development expert based in Abidjan and CEO of her own consultancy firm Nnenna.org. Dr Katim Touray is an international development consultant and one of the board members of ICANN, based in Banjul. Samer Azmy, based in Egypt, is a well-known IT security, systems expert,  blogger and a passionate FOSS advocate. Milton, originally a banking professional, is the IT Programme Manager of WOUGNET, based in Kampala. All FOSSFA executive members are active net citizens.

What have been the major achievements to date of Fossfa?

FOSSFA’s advocacy programme has seen unprecedented success in the past year. The FOSSWAY project (FOSS Advocacy in West Africa and Beyond) saw enormous buy-in. It has launched open source clubs, a regional FOSS study, four university roadshows, its own publications, hands-on trainings for at least 1 000 people in the use and deployment of FOSS.

The ICT@INNOVATION project has also just concluded a series of FOSS Business trainings for more than 15 countries and has increased its business directory to more than 300. We were happy to see that you had already reported on the ICT@innovation book launch.

National roll-outs in Eastern and Southern Africa are underway and the project is preparing its extension to Central and Western Africa.

As activities are deployed across the continent, the foundation has also maintained an international presence in key open source events and spaces: in Asia (WITFOR 2009), in the Americas (OSCON 2009) and in Europe (Linux Tag 2009).

FOSSFA is emerging to be the leading pan-African front for the continent’s engagement in the Internet Governance Forum. Its sessions, since 2009, are now regular and its continental, sub-regional and national engagement has been widened and strengthened.

Of course we have to mention the fourth African conference on FOSS and the Digital Commons – Idlelo 4 which has now confirmed itself as the most important and critical FOSS policy, development and training event in the continent. Idlelo has now grown to provide the needed space for multiple trainings, parallel events, partner events, awards and cultural initiatives. The new logo that was launched in Accra was developed in the open source manner – a global competition was launched – and personifies the new leap of the bi-annual event.

But the achievements of the foundation itself far less important than the achievement of its individual and organisational members. The greater achievement of FOSSFA is in living up to its creed, that of enabling its members to realise their greatest social and economic potentials for  a better Africa. The well-being and enhanced activity of our members, therefore is our greatest  achievement and this is being evidenced by the Foundation’s financial stability.

What are the challenges still facing free and open source software in Africa?

The same that engineered the founding of FOSSFA: lack of policy, difficult implementation of existing policies, political instability, governance challenges, multinationals’ lobbying capacity, infrastructural challenges, low investment in education and capacity-building, general negative image given to Africa and Africans, hazy procurement procedures and inadequate knowledge of the subject matter. We do not intend to dwell on the negatives, we are working to build the positive as fast as possible.

What are the main priorities for the new executive?

This new executive may be described as the “most challenged”. We did not inherit any benefit of doubt. We cannot claim inactivity of members, we have no excuses at all. This means that to whom much is given much is expected.  We are adopting our strategy plan, the action plan, the budget, clearing new projects, recruiting and consolidating the assets of the Foundation. We are already looking forward to 2012 – which will mark the 10 years of the creation of the FOSSFA vision!

Are there areas of Africa that are proving to be particularly strong when it comes to FOSS? Which are those?

Businesses and developers have moved faster than we had envisioned. Idlelo 4 in Accra was a breathtaking experience of what Africans are doing. The conversion of open source knowledge and business ideas into real income, services and government tax has been astounding. So also is the rise of African developers and software. We are happy to report that Africa is no longer just localising software for its use, but has started exporting expertise, software and services.  This was where we wanted to be in 2015. We realised we have hit that target in 2010!  We can only say bravo!

We regularly read about great FOSS projects from around the world but not that many created by African developers. Are there particular African-developed FOSS projects that stand out as good examples of African FOSS.

There is something wrong here.  Either you are not reading at all (and you pretend to be reading) or you are reading but not about open source projects.  Otherwise you would have known that the most important open source software of 2010 are either African, of African origin or have an African relative.

Let me mention Ushahidi from Kenya and Ghana, AVOIR and Chisimba from South Africa, SARIS from Tanzania, LGA and Akwaaba from Ivory Coast, and Cybera from Burkina Faso. We cannot forget Ubuntu, which is the most widely used open source operating system in the universe. The founder was born not too far from Table Mountain, in the beautiful city of Cape Town, South Africa.

Concluding thoughts:

When we look back, it is unbelievable how far FOSSFA has come in a short while. We have consolidated FOSS advocacy, built strong partnerships, broadened our impact, supported development and established one of the most vibrant member-based organisation in the African continent. But we have to raise our eyes and contemplate the future. Then we realised that the journey had just started and the road still to be travelled was further than the one already travelled.

One thing though, we are on the right track. As we put one line of code after another, migrate one work station after another, install one package after another, and train one Africa after another.. we see our vision get clearer, our mission more urgent, our objectives less impossible.

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