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Africa needs free software, not slick marketing talk

By   |  October 21, 2005

Earlier this week Microsoft\’s Nigerian representatives claimed that even if Africans were given open source software they wouldn\’t know what to do with it. In an article published by ZDNet the company\’s representatives said Africans lacked the \”expertise\” to use open source software.

Such outrageous claims can not be allowed to go without a response.

[Excerpt from the article]

Microsoft has claimed the cost of software is not an important issue in the developing world.

In response to a question on the role of open source software in Africa, Gerald Ilukwe, the general manager of Microsoft Nigeria, said that cost is not important, even though he admitted that the average annual salary in the West African country is only $160 (£91).

\”It\’s easy to focus on cost and say how much is a product, but at the end of the day it\’s the total impact that\’s important. You can give people free software or computers, but they won\’t have the expertise to use it,\” he said. \”Microsoft is not a helicopter dropping relief materials; we\’re there in the field.\”

Microsoft\’s Gerald Ilukwe is right about one thing: at the end of the day it is about total impact. That is exactly why Africa needs free software. Not just free software as in no-cost or low-cost software, but free software that comes without present or future restrictions.

Africa needs software that puts users in control, not software that makes them dependent on external companies. Africa also needs software that can be customised, localised and tailored to African circumstances without restriction.

Microsoft shares its code with selected companies and governments. Free software shares its code with everyone.

I think what Mr Ilukwe and Mr Holloway underestimate is the \”real impact\” of free and open source software in Africa.

I think they underestimate the importance of the thousands of computer centres installed across Africa using open source software – and often refurbished PCs – by organisations like OpenLab, TuXlabs, Netday, SchoolNet Namibia and others. We ought not to ignore the fact that each of these centres is a learning environment for hundreds of school goers as well as technical support teams, and is creating expertise daily.

I think they underestimate the importance of an office suite like that is not only available in English in South Africa but is also available in all of the 11 official languages of the country – because it is open source.

I think they underestimate the value of a Swahili spellchecker that was not made by a large multinational corporation, but by a group of enthusiasts that had the time and free software to make it work.

That is real impact. An impact that many open source advocates would be prepared to, and often do, pay money for.

Mr Ilukwe is right about another thing: it is not important how much Africa pays for software. It is important, however, that the continent gets real value for its money. Free software opens up the market. It doesn\’t restrict it. That\’s good value.

I believe that Mr Ilukwe and Mr Holloway also have a flawed perception of what exactly expertise is. They infer that African citizens somehow have the \”expertise\” to use Microsoft\’s software and yet they do not understand how to use other, similar free operating systems. This is absurd. Where there is a skills shortage in Africa – and there is – it is a generalised shortage, not one that only affects the open source software sector.

With free software – which has no restrictions – the opportunities to develop these required skills are significantly higher and perpetual. Free software encourages the sharing of skills, just as it encourages the sharing of knowledge and software code. Proprietary licences explicitly limit the sharing of software and by extension the sharing of technical knowledge.

While we ought to welcome the training efforts by Microsoft on the continent, we must also question whether the company is providing generalised computing skills or simply entrenching itself by teaching skills specific to its own proprietary systems. Microsoft is in the business of selling software and it is something the company does very well. Training users to use its systems is a logical way of ensuring its continued growth in any market and is good business practice. I have no objections to that. I do, however, object to the company trying to pass this off as philanthropic behaviour.

What would truly benefit Africa is software and training that contributes to greater freedom and skills on the continent, not greater obligation and restriction.


10 Responses to “Africa needs free software, not slick marketing talk”

  1. Mlamli Booi
    October 21st, 2005 @ 12:00 am

    We have just had an experience of providing 50 pc to a college in South Africa. THe cost of operating system made the aquisition of those systems too expensive and on top of that, the licences for MS Office was also adding to the pain. If this is not an issue for Microsoft it is a big issue for Africans. We do not have an intelligence problem as Africans as the MS rep seems to believe. I am convinced that Open source is the Solution for African as it provides users with flexibility and access to source code to configure the software to their needs.


  2. Michael
    October 22nd, 2005 @ 12:00 am

    If you give someone where they point and click only they will never learn anything else. In the case with opensource it gives us poorer countries the opty to compete on the level playing field. As it allows for Freedom to change the program to suit our needs as they change. In the case with TCO. I have One Tech assigned to only Desktop repair, 40 Computers. What does he do every day fix 5 Windows machines. The rest being Linux he can sit back and watch. Productivity rises no illegal games and time wasters on the Linux boxes. Just production. And learning he has learn\’t and more about computing that he would have if he had to chase M$ bugs all day. Saying they cant handle linux is like saying because you have eaten an apple you don\’t know how to eat an orange.

  3. Clifton Hyatt
    October 22nd, 2005 @ 12:00 am

    This is the question for SA as well as the rest of Africa and the world.

    There is only one reason the major US IT players are lining up behind FOSS, it is the only remaining choice other than Microsoft, all Microsoft, everywhere.

    This is the same choice we all face, and MS is racing the clock to kill that choice before it can take hold.

    Choose wisely.

  4. david
    October 22nd, 2005 @ 12:00 am

    Africa not only has the technical skills to develop top-tier software, one of the very best is home grown.

    Ubuntu ( is arguably the best free desktop operating system on the planet and has rapidly become one of the most popular Linux distibutions world-wide. This distro hails from South Africa. It\’s open source. It\’s free.

  5. Zoki
    October 24th, 2005 @ 12:00 am

    \”You can give people free software or computers, but they won\’t have the expertise to use it\”

    I almost chocked on this quote. If Joe Six-pack back in Alabama can use \”free software\” (MS means Open Source Software-ed.) then why couldn\’t an \”African\”? I guess at this point in time, lacking better arguments, racism is as good as anything to fight OSS.

    Then this other issue: Free software? What is he talking about? Free software like in free beer or in free choice? It\’s annoying to see employees from a high profile company like MS still mix up apples with oranges. Microsoft, please shut up and go back to school, then come back and ask for a permission to talk.

  6. CPA
    October 24th, 2005 @ 12:00 am

    I\’m from Roswell, NM, USA, and just wanted to tell you all \”Cheers!\” I declare, M$ comes up with the stupidest reasons for us to keep sending them money. Also, even though the proliferation of M$ products has grown, notice how the price has not dropped a cent. Best of luck to you all. We\’re rooting for you.

  7. Dewald Troskie
    October 25th, 2005 @ 12:00 am

    This is just another ploy by the MS PR team to slate any competition they have in any slanderous way they can find. Microsoft neither has the proper understanding of what our continents needs nor the desire to really aggresively do something to educate our people without some financial kickback. Anyway, who want\’s to believe a company whose own leader considers \”Linux a cancer\”.

  8. Andrew
    October 25th, 2005 @ 12:00 am

    These MS representatives should join us for a tuXlab install and see how well the children adapt to using GNU/Linux.

    For many this is there first exposure to computers.

    Africans will choose wisely.

    Go Open Source.

  9. mario olckers
    October 27th, 2005 @ 12:00 am

    I fully agree that open source is the most appropriate way to go to enable African people to access and partake in the 21st century information age

    Efforts like ubuntu from Mark Shuttleworth\’s organisation is one of the most amazing projects

    I am busy learning linux and programming on my own,
    enjoying it and hoping to make my knowledge available to help set up labs running linux or distributing free programming and teaching materials through by hosting a server or publishing and distributing them for free.

  10. A.M. Kaphe
    October 1st, 2007 @ 9:29 am

    I cannot believe what MS is doing. It has thousand of fraud cases concerning the applications it has incorporated in windoze, e.g. mediaplayer. Let alone crushing while trying to do other simple duties on MS office. Can anyone trust MS operating system which just falls apart when typing at faster pace or storing files? Africans, it\’s time we start learning to use Open Source and how to develop applications that can support our businesses on it. To HeLL with proprietary software!!!

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