(Marco’s note, oct. 2010: I have to confess that I don’t remember how this and the other article about Free SW and RULE for Africa came to be written. I seem to have lost all notes and email that would show who sent to me the information below, and what was the original purpose for these articles. One source was probably V. Munthe of FAIR, but I’m not sure. One of these articles, almost surely this one, was even sent to an Eritrean ICT magazine but never published. Anyway, since they are interesting, here they are)
Software is essential in a modern society, but most software development is done with narrow minded, western style consumistic criteria. In the real world most people must still work months to afford any new PC. Schools and NGOs in developing (and developed) nations often only have donated, obsolete hardware. The environment is another reason to maximize hardware and software efficiency. Computers pollute a lot, both when made and when dumped: in march 2004 nobody less than the University of United Nations recommended that “useful lives of personal computers be extended to lighten the burden they put on Earth’s air, land, water and human health”.
A sustainable computing model for Africa
These issues are even more important in Africa. In addition to the problems above, obtaining software is still very difficult in most of the continent: the scarcity of CD burners and very slow Internet connections make impossible, or at least very costly, to download anything from the Internet, distribute it or receive online support. Furthermore, preserving the immense cultural diversity and heritage of all African populations requires that software be localized in too many languages to be still convenient for proprietary software houses.
Free and Open Source Software (FOSS), so popular in the Western world, can play a very important role in African business and social development. It would be a mistake to look at it as a desperate, better-than-nothing solution. FOSS can become a unique opportunity to educate African students, and to jump directly to the best possible IT solution for African needs, without repeating the same mistakes and waste of Western Countries.
Of course, it is undeniable that FOSS must face unique challenges to be really effective in Africa. To begin with, the infrastructure limits mean that FOSS local development and installation can be harder than in other countries. Also unique to Africa and other developing countries is the opportunity, no the need, to use digital technologies to save local traditions. The first thing to do with the first computer in every village should not be an Internet connection. It should be to save history, language, music, recipes, medical expertise, everything that was never previously recorded on paper or silicon, before it disappears. All this means that African computer users must be able to manage modern, royalty free multimedia formats, not to mention, in some cases, Voice over IP calls, to reduce phone bills.
The limited availability of modern powerful hardware for the tasks above is another great problem. Yes, schools, libraries and cybercafes can theoretically offer Internet access to the public. But how do you set them up with only one old computer? How to provision country schools or field hospitals where there is space, funding and need for only one machine, not a whole network?
FOSS has no license costs and another strategic advantage: it is freely adaptable to local needs, without asking for permissions. As some FOSS users in Congo have said “… African people have enough experience with dependencies on foreign technology – they like the possibility of doing something on their own”. It is FOSS which made possible to build Ubuntu, a complete Gnu/Linux desktop system already available in all the main 13 South African languages.
Interesting Free SW resources and initiatives in Africa
Free Software in Africa is by no means limited to RULE or Skolelinux, and the related services already are a viable business model for several companies. A good example is Direqlearn, a “Technology in Education” solutions provider for schools and other communities. This firm, already active in Southern and West Africa, is now able to service the East African region. General information and support on FOSS issues is available online from the Free and Open Source Software Foundation for Africa. In Ethiopia, an excellent starting point is the Open Source Information Centre in Addis Ababa. This non-profit institution provides support (directly or not), to everybody who needs to get started with Linux and Free Software. The Ge’ez Frontier Foundation is working on the Amharic localization of Open Source Software. The private computer college MakeTech also plans to offer Linux courses.