The state of African free software
I spent last Friday evening at a Microsoft-sponsored cocktail party. Nothing too peculiar about that you might think unless I told you the event in question was held in Nairobi and was part of the programme of the Free and Open Source Software Foundation for Africa Idlelo 2 conference.
In fact, Microsoft not only sponsored that evening’s event but was also one of the sponsors of the entire three-day conference and had no less than four speakers on the programme. And in each presentation they preached co-operation, open standards and tolerance. Noticeably, however, they didn’t hand out free copies of their software and the source code, which would have been more in keeping with the spirit of the event.
Their presence at a free software conference does, however, raise questions the African movement ought to be thinking about very seriously. In particular: If this is a free software movement what exactly does a proprietary software company contribute to the realisation of Fossfa’s goals?
The logic of allowing Microsoft to be a sponsor is obvious enough: they paid money. But was it enough money to give them a platform at a conference designed to spread the free software ethos? And how much money is enough money to overlook the fact that this is a company that built — and continues to build — its empire on proprietary software.
Spreading the ideals of free software are clearly not in the interest of Microsoft and we would be naive to believe that they only participated to spread free software ideas.
Let’s hope at the next Idlelo conference the commitment to free software is not allowed to be muddied by the inclusion of companies that have no interest in free software.
The good news
Having said that, even the presence of proprietary vendors could do little to undermine the sense that the free software movement in Africa is indeed growing.
The most exciting element of the conference for me was the inclusion this year of a substantial number of West African participants. Previously there was much talk of encouraging West African participation — Fossfa has historically been dominated by an East and Southern African membership — but until this past week that participation never quite realised.
Speaking to a few of the West African participants it was clear that not only are they very active in the free software arena but they also clearly have a lot to offer, in particular their experiences of developing regional networks of FOSS organisations.
It was also encouraging to see a growth in the East African delegation and great to see countries such as Ethiopia participating despite the huge obstacles a country like that has to overcome. And yet, despite being just a fledgling FOSS movement in that country, the drive to localise free software is a testament to their commitment.
There were also huge strides made during this year’s event. In particular the adoption of the Fossfa constitution and the election of a new Council and Executive. Of course there have been practical and logistical constraints to achieving this before but two years is still way too long to not have a formally adopted constitution.
The Council and Executive, elected to drive the organisation forward over the coming two years, is an encouraging mix of experience and new blood. In particular the election of two women to the executive — Nnenna Nwakanma and Anna Badimo — as well as West African representation.
Going into the conference and AGM, the election of new office bearers and the adoption of the constitution promised to be a heavily contested battle with a broad range of competing interests at stake. And it certainly had its confrontational moments but in the end the process was managed into a state of completion with very Little of the expected fallout for which all credit is due to the existing secretariat.
The other major event of this year’s conference was the handing over of the secretariat to the CSIR-Meraka open source centre. Originally decided at the 2004 Idlelo conference in Cape Town as the direction the organisation would take this poses an interesting challenge for the new secretariat.
On the one hand there are hopes that the resources and organisational experience of the South Africa-based secretariat will add significant value to FOSSFA and assist it in making positive progress over the coming two years.
On the other hand we would be naive to ignore the fact that for many countries in Africa, South Africa has a tendency to be viewed as too dominant a force. The task at hand for the new secretariat is to ensure that they lead the organisation effectively but do not allow South Africa to dominate. They also need to push the orgnisation into new areas of the continent — particularly Central and North Africa — where Fossfa to date has little experience.
On the whole, however, Idlelo2 was hugely valuable and a very positive step towards future goals.