Foundation aims to spur open source in Africa

The formal launch of the Free Software and Open Source Foundation for Africa (FOSSFA) should help consolidate the efforts of programmers across the continent to deliver homegrown solutions to IT users, according to advocates of open source software.

“By establishing the foundation we have in essence created a platform, or you may call it a ‘distribution system,’ which will be the hub of all action,” said Bildad Kagai, co-ordinator of the foundation, based in Nairobi, Kenya.

“Resources will be shared through the foundation, programmers from all over Africa will meet through the foundation, exchange ideas and develop solutions for Africa from within rather than from without,” Kagai said.

FOSSFA was launched at the end of February, with a charter to lobby various interest groups and organizations to adopt open source software as the platform for applications to meet the needs of African people.

Unlike proprietary software developed by commercial software companies, which have strict licensing terms and do not share source code, open-source software is typically developed by volunteer programmers collaborating over the Internet. Open source software is not always free however. There are for example companies who for a fee package, distribute and support open source software such as the Linux operating system.

Africa has an emerging open source software movement and its advocates think countries here can boost their local software industry and save millions of dollars spent on proprietary software.

South Africa is blazing the trail and is on the brink of formalizing the use of open source software. A policy framework, due to go before the South African cabinet for approval soon, recommends that the government implement open-source software, where analysis shows that it is the appropriate option. It also proposes that open source policies be integrated with broader e-government policy and related strategies for the IT and communications sectors of South Africa.

“In the medium term (we will) move on to open source software and in the long term use open-source software applications in everything we do,” said Mojalefa Moseki, the chief Information officer of South Africa’s Information Technology Agency (Pty.) Ltd., about South Africa’s plans to adopt open source software.

Besides saving the South African government several billion rand, which amounts to several hundred million dollars, adopting open-source software will boost the local software industry, Moseki said.

“Most companies that supply open-source software applications are local companies” and so money spent on open-source software will likely be kept within the South African economy, as opposed to money spent on proprietary software that goes to foreign companies, according to Moseki. South Africa’s government spends 3 billion rand (US$352 million) every year on licenses for proprietary software.

South Africa is not alone in promoting the use of open source software in the continent. Neighbouring Namibia runs one of Africa’s groundbreaking Linux projects. SchoolNet Namibia, a volunteer-driven organization that is working to see all Namibian schoolchildren get access to a computer and the Internet, runs its system solely on Linux.

The Linux bustle is not just limited to Southern Africa. In East Africa for example, a government policy document under development in Kenya calls for utilization of open source software, according to FOSSFA’s Kagai.

Although there is no official push for the use of open source software in Kenya’s neighbour, Uganda, it has a vibrant Linux community.

Open source software use in Uganda began in the early 90s with the introduction of Linux and FreeBSD by technologists who used to travel in and out of the country, according to James Wire Lunghabo, managing director of Linux Solutions. The Kampala-based company offers Linux applications to users throughout Uganda.

The springing up of ISPs also helped create a growth in open source software usage. Over time, open source software, especially Linux and FreeBSD, have crept into systems used by government and academic officials as well as by private companies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), according to Lunghabo. FreeBSD is an open-source version of the Unix operating system.

And late last year, a Linux User Group was set up in Uganda to try and bring together Linux and other open source enthusiasts.

In West Africa, Senegal leads in the effort to get the use of open source formalized by the government. According to the special advisor on IT to the president, Thierno Ousmane Sy, Senegal is expected to issue a strong statement regarding open source software.

Apart from empowering the youth of Senegal, the administration can make savings on software, Sy said. The administration spends about $1 million on software a year, according to Sy.

Ghanaian authorities on the other hand say they may consider open source software for educational and research institutions and sections of the civil service that are not mission-critical.

“In the civil service, we’re paying a lot on licenses on software. If we can move to the open system, we can save some money,” said Clement Dzidonu, the chairman of Ghana’s National ICT Development Policy Committee, the body that is drawing up Ghana’s IT policy.

Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria, is lagging behind other countries on the continent in terms of open-source adoption. But a group made up of charitable and social organizations including WANGONet, DevNet, HURINet, Junior Achievement, Global Internet Policy Initiative, and African Heritage Foundation for Human Development is promoting open source software as one way of developing information and communications technology in Nigeria. The group is helping individuals and companies using Open Source in Nigeria to work together.

These developments on the open source front have not gone unnoticed by Microsoft Corp. Microsoft, in a number of moves to apparently keep the Linux threat at bay, has entered into a number of deals with some African governments.

South Africa’s Ministry of Education, for example, agreed to a deal with Microsoft. The deal, signed in May last year, will provide all 32,000 public schools in the country perpetual free access to the use of selected Microsoft software.

As part of the agreement schools will have access to the Microsoft Office productivity suite; a selection of development and educational titles; operating system upgrade rights to Windows; and server products.

Microsoft Corp. also made similar offers to the Nigerian government. These include an offer to help deploy IT to government institutions.

In Namibia, however, SchoolNet last November rejected Microsoft offer of free software and networking hardware.

Though in some areas, open-source software adoption is at a fairly early stage, its advocates have high hopes.

“It’s a bit fuzzy at the moment but results will culminate to huge savings by governments especially, and employment will be created,” said Kagai, in response to questions about what African governments stand to gain by adopting open source software.

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