'Open source key to Africa's development'
As the world prepares for the World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva next month Tectonic caught up with Bildad Kagai to discuss the progress being made on the formation of the Open Source Foundation for Africa(OSFA), to be launched at the summit. Kagai is a member of the interim Open Source Taskforce for Africa tasked with setting up the OSFA.
Tectonic: What is the Open Source Foundation for Africa?
Bildad Kagai: It all started during the ICT policy and civil society workshop in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, when 82 participants from 25 different countries invited by the Association for Progressive Communications(APC), Article 19 and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) assembled to discuss ICTs in Africa. The workshop participants agreed that open source software is paramount to Africa’s progress in the ICT arena, and began work on a coordinated approach to support open source development, distribution and integration.
In Africa, we see the value of open source in broad terms. Open source guarantees us opportunities to develop local programs built by Africans for use in Africa. We are working with educators to introduce open source into schools, where young people can learn to use, maintain, modify and improve computer software. We envision a future in which governments and the private sector embrace open source software and enlist local experts in adapting and developing appropriate tools, applications and infrastructures for an African technology renaissance.
We foresee South-to-South cooperation in which students from Ghana to Egypt and Kenya to Namibia develop programs that are then adopted by software gurus in Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda. We see an opportunity for Africa de-colonizing itself and narrowing the digital divide.
The goal is to develop African products that serve an African market using African expertise. In some places, this is just beginning to happen. The question is: will the large-scale vision remain just a dream, or can we generate real action, real momentum?
The task force is working towards establishing an independent institution – the Open Source Foundation for Africa – at the WSIS(World Summit on Information Society) PrepCOM II meeting in Geneva in February, 2003.
T: Who will fund OSFA?
BK: During the workshop in Addis Ababa, a task force on open source in Africa was created. The task force has embarked on activities that will foster an enabling environment, a supporting infrastructure, and a connected community. The taskforce is comprised of fourteen members:
Lawase Akpolou – SchoolNet Africa – South Africa
Milton Aineruhanga – Wougnet – Uganda
Tunji Lardner – WangoNet – Nigeria
Joris Komen – SchoolNet – Namibia
Gideon Hayford Chonia – University of Zurich – Switzerland
Adebayo Oyewole – ICT Consultant – USA
Idile Osman Ahmed – ONG – Djibouti
Abigail Thompson – Ghana
Ousmane Sy – Keneya Blown – Mali
Bildad Kagai – Circuits and Packets Consulting – Kenya
Eric Osiakwan – Internet Research – Ghana
Peter Benjamin – Association for Progressive Communications – South Africa
Tamela Hultman – All Africa Global Media – Mauritius/USA
Philipp Schmidt – Bridges.Org – South Africa
OSFA will seek support from governments, donors and its friends interested in seeing open source take roots in Africa.
T: You say that open source software is paramount to Africa’s progress. Why?
BK: Africa can no longer afford to pay huge amounts of monies in terms of licenses, training or maintenance of software which does not have the capacity of promoting local expertise development. Such resources should be directed to training Africans in software development that works for them and this can only be achieved through open source as opposed to proprietary software.
The sense of ownership and the zeal to further improve locally developed softaware is the key advantage of open source software. Open Source also allows for localisation, africanisation and uniform spread across Africa as opposed to proprietary software which is “locked” and does not allow for adaption to the needs of the users.
T: The state of IT-readiness and access to technology in Africa is vastly different to that of Europe and the US. Is this a major constraint to the spread of technology and open source in Africa?
BK: The state of IT-readiness is different simply because they (Europe and US) are ahead while Africa is just starting. The challenges they went through will be the same for us with the advantage that we will be able to learn quickly from their experiences and avoid tumbling into the same problems. In the current state of affairs, this is a win-win situation for Africa. ie. It cannot get worse than it is.
T: Should African governments play a more significant role in promoting the use of open source as a viable and and cheaper alternative to proprietary software?
BK: Governments being the heaviest consumers of ICTs hold the key to the success or failure of the work of the Foundation. Apart from directing the using open source, they should also put up policies that enable its development from high school level upwards to allow local expertise to grow.
T: How important is it to teach open source to children at school level from a young age?
BK: This is the only way we can be able to develop local software programmers. Children should be exposed to open source as early as possible so that it can be a career choice just like medicine, engineering or teaching.
T: Does OSFA plan to be a policy and framework organisation or will it be actively sponsoring open source software projects
BK: OSFA needs to do both to prosper.
T: Where on the continent is open source starting to thrive?
South Africa, Ghana, Kenya and Namibia have established themselves whilst Tanzania, Djibouti and Ethiopia are examples of countries that need to start as soon as possible.
T: How can Africans get involved in the OSFA?
We have called for Africans interested in involvement to register with us at our portal http://osfa.allafrica.com. However, proper procedures will be put in place when the Foundation is launched in February 2003.