Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Africa and Open Source software

Africa is the most under represented continent when it comes to contributing to open source projects, yet it stands to gain the most of any continent from it. This seems so sad to me.

Why is this so?

There is a perception with many African developers I have met that Open Source is something done by rich western volunteers, in order to benefit people like themselves. There is a tendency to mix it up with the work of Save the children fund, or Oxfam. I have heard the following said many times: "I am an African I can't afford to be a volunteer". It is viewed as a resource to be taken from, but not to give back to.

This is not to say there are no African open source developers, just far fewer than there should be given the wealth of talent on the African continent.

Why should Africans should participate fully Open Source? 

There are two very obvious reasons why individuals can gain from fully participating in open source projects

Firstly by interacting with other programmers it is possible to increase your skill set in ways that would otherwise be impossible. Many of the worlds best programmers are involved in open source projects and are happy to mentor those who are new.

Secondly by contributing to open source projects you enhance your reputation globally. Most if not all the worlds big software companies monitor open source projects looking for talented programmers. In what other way could a student at an African university bring their talents to the attention of the likes of Google or Facebook? Open source show cases your skills.

Proposal to build an African software industry

So much for how contributing to open source can help individuals progress, but what about on a country level? Every year African countries spend millions of dollars on software licenses, almost all, if not all of this money is paid to western companies and none of this money ends up in the African economy. This is despite the fact that all the software necessary is available through open source. So my proposal is this:

I will use Uganda as my example here but this applies equally to any African country.

I propose that the largest university in Uganda (Makerere University) would create a Linux Distribution, based on one of the big distributions such as Ubuntu, Debian, Suse or Fedora. This would be branded for Uganda, and include any applications specific to Uganda, together with any local language translations. This distribution would be maintained by the university and would be used as the basis for their teaching, and funded by the government with money that would otherwise have gone abroad. It would be an excellent resource for all areas that are taught in the computer science department. Creating this is not a huge task as there is a large amount of documentation on this subject to be found on the web.

The distribution would contain all the applications needed, such as LibreOffice for word processing and spreadsheets, Firefox for web browsing etc.

The government would commit to moving all their computers to this distribution. If the city of Munich in Germany can achieve this I see no reason why Kampala can't.

The contracts to support the government departments would then be handed out to local support companies, who would have been trained in the distribution at the university. Thus the money instead of going to large American multinationals would stay in Uganda and would circulate within the Ugandan economy, making a sustainable Ugandan IT industry.

Private industry would see the increase in skills with Linux, and the consequent decrease in the skill levels in other operating systems. They would start to take the pragmatic decision to move to this Linux distribution.

We have seen recently how the big American corporations have been "encouraged" to give the security services back doors into their operating systems, allowing the likes of the NSA to view what is on the computers of anybody in the world using their operating systems. This would include (in theory) any member of the Ugandan government. Using a Ugandan operating system built in Uganda, with the code open to view would stop this happening.

So there it is, a simple recipe for creating a sustainable IT industry within Africa, keeping the money in Africa, and potentially exporting IT to the rest of the world, instead of constantly leaking the money out of the Africa. All of this could be achieved with the technology available now. All it takes the will in the government to make it happen. Lets put pressure on them to start making it happen today!


  1. This is an interesting point of view. I wonder what it takes to getting the government committed to that idea. You tell us that in Munich they have been doing the same thing, it means building up a local system. So how did they do it - and is that a model that can be adopted elsewhere.

    1. Hi Mike, yes Munich has nearly (maybe completely now) moved over to using a purpose designed Linux distro called LiMux. Getting government committed is the hardest part. I have lobbied privately for a few years now, but thought it was time to try and get more people involved. - Tim

  2. Hi Tim, i applause you on that incredible point of view. I don't know what's your way forward on that note because all of you are really quiet. I expected to get a deeper experience from both developer and user point of view about your solution. When do you plan to come to Uganda? I have some other Software Business Ideas for Governments on the African continent. I want know whether its possible for us to partner technically and business-wise in that regard. However, for your info, Government of Uganda already has a hospital system; related to Kwamoja whose worth was $ 22.8million of which i was part of the developer team though, its not open. Makerere University and Prof. Hugh Cameron in particular anticipate to know what is transpiring.

    1. hello Mr Masinde, am pleased to note that you were part of the team that developed the new software for hospitals in Uganda. Has it gone on air now?

  3. Hi Andrew, I have replied via your gmail account.


  4. Refreshing article on why open source could be so valuable for Africa. I work in global development and made the switch to Linux a year back just to set an example (all my colleagues use Windows). But whenever I travel to Africa I am disappointed at the relatively low level of computer proficiency even among university faculty. At a workshop recently, some well-educated people didn't even know what "address bar" of a browser meant and instead began to type a URL in the Google search bar. And some others just don't want to learn about any computer-related stuff; they have a mental block. Linux is not for the "I don't care about my OS or software and I just want the job done" type.

    One needs to put in some effort understanding the concept of free software and open source software, what's free (the software itself) and what's not (the service to install and maintain software), pros and cons (MS Office compatibility definitely a con, although not debilitating), and the long-term sustainability advantage of FOSS. I think some intervention is needed for this change in mindset, before we can even talk about Linux distros, open source equivalents of commercial software, etc.

    1. Hi Ravi, thanks for your comments. The UK government has recently taken the step of standardising on open document format for all their public facing documents, whilst the Ugandan government still mandates that people use a Microsoft product to view their documents. A couple of years ago I got into an argument on the Uganda Linux user group mailing list for making detrimental comments about Apple products, and it turned out that I was the only person on the list favouring Linux over Apple (Yes a LUG mailing list). There was a lack of knowledge and understanding about what Free software was. I got told by people that as their pirated copy of OSX was free then it was equivalent to Linux. It was a depressing experience because if that was what people thought on a LUG mailing list what hope in the wider population. So I agree that a change of mind set is called for.
      It is not just the cost saving, it is the fact that a whole local ICT industry can be built around it, and African countries can become a net exporter of ICT rather than pouring millions of dollars into the pockets of western corporations.

  5. Hi Tim, I think this is a great idea. As an advocate of open source software, hardware and information I am excited and very interested in your project.

    Keep fighting the good fight.

    1. Thanks Clint, all help is gratefully accepted. Just evangelising the cause is a huge step.

  6. Pls I like your assistance in building career and skills in IT Programming. Thanks
    From Nigeria

  7. Tim, we can bring this conversation to Kampala during #IDLELO7 this August. What would it take? Please drop some notes to idlelo/@/

  8. Tim, we can bring this conversation to Kampala during #IDLELO7 this August. What would it take? Please drop some notes to idlelo/@/

  9. Good IDEA! You love the African Continent going foward!

    1 day Yes1