South Africa taps open source to boost local IT

South Africa is working toward transforming itself into a software exporter by developing an open source software (OSS) industry.

“Using OSS … coordinated strategy and policy interventions, we have the opportunity to reduce the barriers to entry into the market for new companies,” said Imraan Saloojee, manager of information and communication technologies (ICT) at South Africa’s (SA’s) Department of Science and Technology, in an e-mail.

“A proliferation of OSS and development tools and interest groups will expand the general competence level of the population and will help drive the development of relevant products and services for local consumption and export,” Saloojee said.

To realize its plan, the South African government recently launched the Open Source Centre under the auspices of the CSIR, the science and industry research agency sponsored through Department of Science and Technology. The Open Source Centre is involved in a number strategic initiatives within the private sector, government and the education and training sector.

On the government level, the centre is advising public sector bodies and working groups on open source policy and strategy. The aim is to stimulate the open source market by campaigning for the uptake and use of OSS, thereby facilitating the growth of a home-grown South African ICT industry.

The centre is also facilitating the production, adaptation and adoption of easily available, appropriate and quality open source training material, as well as promoting the use of OSS as a teaching and learning platform.

“The Centre’s enabling role in ensuring the success of various open source initiatives is to make this technology available to empower the people of Southern Africa and to contribute to economic development and improvement of quality of life. Another factor which has encouraged OSS adoption is a push for a turnaround in the regional ICT market from being an importer of technology to a producer and exporter of technology,” Saloojee said.

In a related development, a group of technology experts and government officials were recently put together help boost SA’s development skills in open source software.

In February, South Africa’s Government Information Technology Officers Council, comprising the government department chief information officers, approved a proposed strategy to use open source software in the country’s government. The basic policy recommendation was for the government to implement open source software where analysis shows that it is the appropriate option.

Subsequently in June the SA cabinet approved the OSS strategy.

“The primary criteria for selecting software solutions will remain the improvement of efficiency, effectiveness and economy of service delivery by Government to its citizenry,” according to a statement by the authors of the policy framework.

They also recommended that open source software policies be integrated with broader e-government policy and related strategies for SA’s IT and communications sectors.

“We seek to develop critical mass of competencies in terms of skills, facilities, etc… focused on achieving a competitive advantage for South Africa,” Saloojee said. “An important input into this exercise is ICT road mapping, which aims to determine those technology areas where SA can make a significant world contribution within a three- to five-year time frame. We then look to the present to see what should be done to realize this competence.”