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Open Source in Africa

by Kwindla Kramer

More than 70 people who work on free and open source software in Africa gathered in Namibia between March 15 and 19 to teach, to learn, and to network. This meeting, called Africa Source, was the first event of its kind, bringing together developers from roughly 25 countries on the continent, as well as visitors from a dozen countries outside Africa. Africa Source had several organizers, including SchoolNet Namibia, The Tactical Technology Collective, and The AllAfrica Foundation, with support from The Open Society Institute, and USAID.

Kwindla Hultman Kramer attended the conference. Here are his notes from the first day.

Africa Source, Day One

The first full day of sessions at Africa Source is winding down. It's after midnight, and the temperature in the dry Namibian plateau is dropping quite fast. A few stragglers are still logged into the wireless network, and a discussion of software community politics continues under the stars. Most of us have had a long day of travel followed by an intense round of conference activities, and are either asleep or nearly so.

We're all here because we work on free and open source software. Most of us live in Africa, although a number of us are guests, invited to share our experiences working in other parts of the world. Many of us know each other well online but are meeting face to face for the first time. We're a diverse group. Our individual reasons for attending Africa Source vary, but we're all hoping this week to create stronger cross-border ties and to plan how to grow the as-yet relatively small community of F/OSS developers in Africa.

A quartet of presentations by several well-known open source personalities anchored our first morning here. Joris Komen described SchoolNet.NA's model for providing affordable technology to classrooms in Namibia, Guido Sohne detailed his vision for an African Silicon Valley, Nicholas Kimolo reported on the activities of the Free and Open Source Software Foundation for Africa, and Sunil Abraham talked about software and civil society in India.

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Joris challenged his audience (most of whom are programmers) to write code that runs well on the three- and four-year-old machines that SchoolNet refurbishes and distributes. Joris' colleagues Teddy Nyirenda and Aune Hendrick have set up three thin-client clusters for us to use this week, so we're able to experience first-hand the computing environment that is available in SchoolNet's classrooms. Joris showed his cost models for importing and refurbishing donated equipment, training Namibian tech personnel and delivering connectivity and content.

Guido argues that of the many factors impeding the growth of Africa's technology industry, the most important are:

  • limited integration of technology into economies that are often still primarily structured around extraction and simple agriculture,

  • very little access to investment capital, and

  • the difficulty of bootstrapping a large, skilled technology workforce when equipment and connectivity costs place personal computers and Internet access out of reach for most Africans.

In many countries, these three bottlenecks are beginning to ease, but not fast enough. Guido lives in Accra, Ghana, where he's regarded as a very young elder statesman of open source development. He asserts — based on an extrapolation from Accra and a back-of-the-envelope population density calculation — that there are only about 500 "real hackers" in sub-Saharan Africa outside of South Africa. Whatever the number, it's too small. Guido argues that to create a tech boom in Africa will require African developers and entrepreneurs to join together in virtual, multinational companies; to focus on developing African solutions to African problems; and to be flexible about supporting both open source and proprietary approaches, especially in the short term. Guido's presentations never fail to stimulate discussion.

Sunil described the technology boom in India from the perspective of someone who works with civil society organizations to build sustainable, local systems. India, at the moment, sits at the center of a growing international conversation about technology, trade, and development. Guido argues that India is not necessarily a good model for Africa, and Sunil suggests that in some ways India is not a good model for India, either.

Through a series of anecdotes and vignettes, Sunil describes Bangalore as a vibrant, exciting environment built on a number of unresolved contradictions. Many American programmers have lately begun to worry about whether their jobs might be outsourced to India. Sunil notes that Indian companies own very little of the intellectual property that they produce, and he fears that Indian jobs will migrate to China. As in Africa, most of the population remains unable to afford access to computers and the Internet, and reliance on imported software and a closed IP regime slows local development of technology. If every piece of proprietary software used in India were legally paid for, he says, the country would actually spend more foreign currency on software licenses than it earns from its outsourcing industry.

Still, there are 36 GNU/Linux user groups in India. No comparable base of technology activity exists anywhere in Africa, yet.

Just before lunch, we established a "distributed, decentralized community library," made possible by several boxes of donated books from O'Reilly Media. We passed out the titles in a pseudo-random fashion, two to a person, letting the free (and open) market decide which books would be read by whom. By the end of the afternoon, most titles had changed hands at least once. The Linux Network Administrator's Guide proved particularly hot, although the classic references on Perl and Python saw strong demand, as one would expect.

We have four more days here, and many of us have already begun to plan the next iterations of Africa Source. There will likely be a larger meeting — this one to include civil society technology "customers" — in Ghana in fall 2004. A number of spin-out initiatives were suggested in various contexts today as well.

Tomorrow we have sessions on translating and localizing software, on gender issues, and on business strategies. A long block of time in the afternoon is set aside for free-form, peer-to-peer, "skill-shares" on such topics as using public-key cryptography, building F/OSS applications around SMS and other cellular phone technologies, tips on tuning large databases, and many others.

Morning will come around quickly, particularly as one of our most outgoing participants has assigned himself the job of waking us all up each day at 7:30 a.m. with a guitar and a specially composed "Breakfast Song." Like most folks here, I live in a big city and rarely get to see so many stars. So it's time to dim this laptop's LCD and stare up at the Southern sky for a while, before trying to grab a few hours of sleep.

Kwindla Kramer is the CTO of

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