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So you’re thinking of going open source? Karoline Kemp looks at the benefits of freeing yourself from the grip of Microsoft domination, touching on issues of cost, accessibility and participation, but also cautioning that issues of infrastructure and compatibility need to be taken into account. The article ends with a listing of useful resources related to open source.

Free and open source software is not a new concept or tool, but is only beginning to gain in popularity. This too is the case in Africa, where, by its very nature, it is beneficial for organisations working with few resources. By way of a brief introduction to Free and open source software (FLOSS), a definition may be useful. Wikipedia defines FLOSS as “computer software and the availability of its source code as open source under an open source license to study, change, and improve its design.” FLOSS has over the years become an area of increased interest, not least because, as University of California FLOSS expert Steve Weber has stated: “Software determines how information is manipulated, where it flows, to whom, and for what reasons.”

That said, FLOSS’s growing popularity can be put down to a number of reasons. These can be identified as the following:

- Reduced costs and less dependency on imported technology and skills;
- Affordable software for individuals, enterprise and government;
- Universal access through mass software rollout without costly licensing implications;
- Access to government data without barrier of proprietary software and data formats;
- Ability to customise software to local languages and cultures;
- Lowered barriers to entry for software businesses;
- Participation in global network of software development;
- Supplier independence;
- Patches or updates become available quicker, which limits breakdowns and security risks.

A further examination of these benefits reveals the following.

Free and open source software is free in the sense that its code is free, and can thus be changed and manipulated. The difference between FLOSS and proprietary software is that there are no restrictions coming from patents, copyrights, licensing fees, etc. Because the code for FLOSS is free, it can be run for any purpose and further, can be studied, adapted, improved and then redistributed. It may not necessarily be free monetarily, but is often much cheaper than proprietary software.

The potentials for FLOSS to NGOs to become autonomous from corporate providers are also notable. Not only does this address economic issues, but it also gives the freedom of self-reliance. This means that NGOs using FLOSS can reduce their dependence on external technology providers. They also own what they have developed, thus building on capacity development. If a community owns their resources – understands how it works, adapts it for their specific purposes and takes pride in the fact that they have reclaimed something that was once not a part of their own infrastructure, then capacity is built.

FLOSS also has a political role to play. Not only does it offer a commercial alternative to Microsoft domination, but it also puts software into the hands of people, making it a freely available public good. This increases the choices available to users and means that software can meet a diversity of needs.

One of the primary advantages of FLOSS is its capacity to be customized and localized.
FLOSS can be used by anyone, but can be advantageous to NGOs in a number of ways. Groups can run and operate computers with FLOSS that have been programmed to meet their specific needs and preferences. The possibilities for software customisation are unlimited.

Free and open source software can also be localized to meet local demands, including the use of local languages. This aspect has huge potential, as it makes accessibility to information and communications technology widespread. This involves writing software so that words appear in a different target language.

Governments are often the heaviest consumers of information and communication technologies in developing countries, thus their participation is paramount to the success of any open source initiative. Historically, research and development of ICTs have responded mainly to global market incentives. Because developing countries do not usually have the resources to invest in these sorts of schemes, they have often been left behind. FLOSS introduces the potential to close this digital divide, and this is one area where the government has a crucial role to play. In addition, both governments and non-governmental organisations in the developed world alike are increasingly becoming computer enabled, which means that they will favour interaction with countries in the developing world that are similarly enabled and can interact effectively with their information and management systems. FLOSS also has the potential to save governments large amounts of money, as well as make them less dependent on the developed world in general terms of technological and skills transfer. Long term cost savings may also occur as a result of reducing reliance on single sources and suppliers.

The development of FLOSS also represents a means for skills development and knowledge transfer. Local personnel can be trained in the field – organisations benefit, jobs are created and African programmers thus have the opportunity to participate in a global market. This potential also creates prospects for further involvement in creating and strengthening the traditional ICT field of a country - business opportunities are thus created.

There do exist certain problems with FLOSS in Africa. The primary pitfall of FLOSS is that it needs, from the outset, someone with enough IT knowledge to implement the software. Having the actual resources – computers and some initial software also pose challenges, as does the ability to pay IT staff. Having the appropriate infrastructure to support all of this is also a problem, but not one confined to FLOSS users. What is unique, however, is the problem of compatibility with other operating systems as well as hardware. Having to adapt software to make it fit with other operating systems poses a big challenge. Being able to find existing FLOSS is also difficult, as it is generally not advertised. Upon finding the appropriate software it is often accompanied by documentation that is not user friendly.

* Karoline Kemp is a Commonwealth of Learning Young Professional Intern assigned to Fahamu.

* Please send comments to [email protected]

Sources/Further Reading:

Alternative Routes in the Digital World: Free and open source software in Africa. Victor van Reijswoud and Corrado Topi

Open Software & Open Standards in South Africa: A Critical Issue for Addressing the Digital Divide. National Advisory Council on Innovation (Open Software Working Group)

Open source software in Developing Economies. Steven Weber

Open source software: Perspectives for Development. Paul Dravis

Straight from the Source: Perspectives from the African Free and Free and open source software Movement. in collaboration with the Tactical Technology Collective

The Politics of Open Source Adoption, NGO's in the Developing World. Gabriella Coleman

Further links and reading:

NGO in a Box
(Offers peer reviewed and selected OSS tailored to the needs of NGOs)

Martus -
(Offers software that allows users to document human rights abuses, upload them and store them on redundant servers around the world)

Nigerian Open Source Project
(A Nigerian Open Source Project that aims to make software available in the three main Nigerian languages)

Ubuntu Linux
(OSS project based on the belief that OSS should be available free of charge, software tools should be useable in their own language and that people should be able to alter it)

Tactical Tech Conference
Conference in Uganda in Free and Open Source Software in local communities. It is an eight day conference aimed at building the technical skills of those working with African NGOs

Open Source Africa
(Aims to bridge the information divide by raising awareness about the benefits (and pitfalls) of open source software on the ground in Africa.)

Open NGO
(Builds OSS for non-profit, NGO and social sectors)

Freedom Toaster
(Provides free OSS downloads across South Africa)

NonProfit Open Source Initiative
Informal group of non-profit sector tech providers interested in the way OSS could benefit their work

Source Forge
Largest OSS website, hosting OS code and applications

Open Knowledge Network
Among other things, OKN uses OSS for the creation, display and exchange of locally relevant information)

Linux Chix Africa
(Linux training of trainers in South African Townships)


Free and Open Source Software in Africa -
(Promotes the use of OSS in Africa and partners with the Health, Education, and Government Departments to meet ICT objectives in Africa)

Shuttleworth Foundation
(Supports education and social development through technology, including OSS)

Opensource Initative
(Non-profit corporation dedicated to managing and promoting OSS for the good of the community)

Association for Progressive Communications
(International network of CSOs dedicated to supporting social justice through the strategic use of technology, including the internet)

Tectonic -
(Source for African OSS news)