Free and Open Source Software in sub-Saharan Africa

  • 2011•06•28

    Sulayman K. Sowe

    Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) is impacting all aspects of information and communications technology (ICT), ranging from core infrastructure such as cloud computing to the development and deployment of e-learning, e-health, e-government and e-commerce applications.

    This technology, which makes the human-readable source code of software accessible to anyone who wants to obtain it, gives users the freedom to openly share it with their friends, but further the freedom to customize, adapting the software to their local needs, and even sell it without much restriction, unlike proprietary software. FOSS is empowering individuals and communities, and enabling diverse talents and cultures, to collaborate with technology partners of their choice.

    These characteristics provide opportunities for formal and informal educational establishments, governments, NGOs, small and marginalized communities, and ICT businesses in developing countries, not only to actively participate in the development and shaping of their own technology, but to lower technology acquisition and deployment costs, significantly reduce vendor lock-in, etc.

    Sub-Saharan Africa continues to make substantial strides in some of these areas. This has far-reaching implications for understanding current technology transfer issues as well as the development, deployment and usage of FOSS technologies to boost Africa’s ICT infrastructure. More important, perhaps, is that experts and practitioners involved in ICT initiatives in Africa now have the opportunity to rethink how best they can leverage and support Africa’s FOSS potential and expertise.

    To date, the trend in the adoption and utilization of FOSS technologies has remained, to a large extent, a phenomenon for developed economies. The socioeconomic, technological and educational impacts of FOSS for North America, Europe and the rest of the developed world are well documented, both in the academic literature (for example as discussed in PC Tech Magazine) and by means of anecdotal evidence. The demographic nature of FOSS participation is also skewed, with few developers and users coming from Africa.

    Nonetheless, a closer examination of some of the initiatives and projects championed by Africans demonstrates that many FOSS activities are indeed underway in Africa in terms of capacity building, development and usage, educational and business applications, advocacy campaigns, policy implementation, R&D, etc. For example:

    • FOSSFA — The Free Software and Open Source Foundation for Africa is a nonprofit pan-African organization with a mission that includes, among other objectives, promoting the use and adoption of FOSS in Africa.
    • ict@innovation is an African capacity building programme of FOSSFA and GIZ (Germany’s state-owned development organization) that supports small and medium IT enterprises and aims to encourage the growth of African ICT industries.
    • OSISA — This Southern African foundation seeks to promote and sustain the ideals, values, institutions and practices of an open society.
    • AVOIR — African Virtual Open Initiatives and Resources is a network of 11 institutions for developing FOSS and capacity building in software engineering in Africa.
    • ANLoc — The African Network for Localization empowers Africans to participate in the digital age by supporting the adaptation of ICT to the language and culture where it is used.
    • OER Africa — This portal, an initiative of the South African Institute for Distance Education,  provides access to those who seek to learn about and benefit from Open Educational Resources (OER).
    • AITI-KACE — The Ghana-India Kofi Annan Centre of Excellence in ICT is a bi-national capacity building and training facility that aims to stimulate the growth of the ICT sector, including FOSS, in the Economic Community of West African States.

    These initiatives illustrate that sub-Saharan Africa is experiencing a gradual, yet significant shift from the use of technologies and services based on proprietary software to free open source software solutions and services.

    The FOSSINA project, sponsored by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science in collaboration with the United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies (UNU-IAS) and the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, posits that there is an urgent need to understand the dynamics and sustainable aspects of this technology shift in sub-Saharan Africa in particular, and in developing countries in general.

    Such an understanding may benefit from findings coming from the FOSSDeva survey and FOSSINA case studies.  To date (mid-June 2011), just fewer than 100 people have responded to the survey, which aims to investigate the potential impact of FOSS technologies and services for sustainable development in sub-Saharan Africa.

    Though results are still preliminary, in response to the question about the factors that motivate involvement in FOSS, the most prominent replies were: (1) to learn to use FOSS; (2) to be able to use software without propriety copyright infringement; and (3) to be able to customize software to meet my needs/to improve my computer skills (see the chart for more details).

    Factors that motivate people in sub-Saharan Africa to become involved in FOSS

    The respondents were also asked to identify the main barriers to the uptake of FOSS in Africa; the top three reasons are: (1) lack of awareness of FOSS; (2) the fact that FOSS is not taught in schools and colleges; and (3) lack of national policies to support FOSS. Quite clearly, the results can be used to guide national government decisions in Africa on how to promote the spread of FOSS. See the chart below for more details.

    Barriers for using FOSS

    Ultimately, it is hoped the survey results will assist the FOSSINA project in developing an in-depth understanding of the widespread use of FOSS technologies and services in the public and private sectors in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as in outlining a FOSS research and innovation roadmap for sub-Saharan Africa by identifying FOSS research and cooperation priorities. 

Further, the survey will contribute to FOSSINA’s goal of developing guidelines and indicators for African policymakers to create a positive environment for the further uptake of FOSS, as well as providing practical cases and scenarios that can serve as models for other regions in Africa and the rest of the developing world.