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The challenge of promoting FOSS in Africa

I have been involved in FOSS advocacy in Kenya for the last 7 years. My love affair with FOSS started when I was looking for a content management system (CMS) for a sports portal I was proposing to develop back in 2003. I looked around and what I saw was not impressive. The figures that were being quoted for applications like octigon were basically far out of reach for me as i was just starting out in my consulting business (BTW, just google that name and see what happened to them).

Then I talked to a friend from the Netherlands who wondered why on earth I was considering buying a CMS when sourceforge was bursting at the seams with hundreds of free CMSs. That was the big break for me. I felt like I was stealing when I saw the many CMSs at sourceforge (and thousands of other applications) for free, and what I could do with them.

I never looked back. This opened a world of opportunities for my new business. I could deploy dynamic websites for clients in a matter of hours. I could study the code and make changes where I needed to. I could get support from people I have never met even to this date. I made new friends. Most important of all, I made self employment become a reality.

These are some of the benefits of FOSS. Choosing which CMS to use was the challenge. What criteria would I use? which one was more stable? which one had a better community support? I chose MamboCMS. Mambo has forked to Joomla, which is being used by millions of people globally to create websites. Majority of the Government websites in Kenya run on Joomla.

Such is the success of open source. Yet we are still faced with a big challenge to promote the wider adoption of FOSS in Africa, especially on the desktop. The amount of money that our governments and our economies spend on software is tremendous. Leave alone the lost opportunities that could accrue from widespread use of FOSS in our countries.

We formed the Kenya Linux User Group in 2002, which transformed into the Linux professional Association of Kenya in 2007. Through the LPA, we have made efforts to change the place of open source software in Kenya. We have had some successes, but we have had our challenges too.

one of the biggest challenge that I know of FOSS in Africa is the lack of support capacity. Linux is still an OS for the geeks in Africa. The average user has not heard about it. Many in government have not realised its potential as an ICT4D tool. The support infrastructure is still young. There are open source companies with very good skills, both in development and engineering, but the user base is small.

This is the way I see it. We need to take radical measures to change this. One way will be to increase the number of trained and certified Linux Engineers. We need to populate the place with them. The effect of this is that it will be easy for the public and private sector to deploy open source applications because there will be adequate support capacity. They will also support desktop users and so it will be easier to sell Linux for the desktop.

This is my brief as the Manager for the FOSS Certification pillar of the ICT@innovation programme. We will explore long term solutions that will benefit the African continent, while still taking advantage of the short term goals of this project. We will build partnerships with those who share our vision of promoting widespread adoption of FOSS in Africa. We will build the structures on which to found a lasting and sustainable FOSS ecosystem. We will work with National and regional chapters to make this a reality.

Moving forward, the time has come for us to play a bigger role in determining how we train and certify our users. This involves not only the mode and delivery of training, the model of the exam, but also the pricing structures that will be affordable to our users.

With Idlelo4 just two weeks away, this strategy will start taking shape in the coming months. There will be input from the entire FOSS community in Africa, and it will be an ambitious strategy. I look forward to working with the community towards this exciting goal. See you all in Accra.

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