Software: free West Africa?
By Ramata Soré
OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso, 28 February 2008
So as to play a part in the information society, free software could drive the computerisation of West Africa. But although migration to free software may be a development alternative, it first has to transit via organising the world of developers and navigate through the interests of governments and the private sector.
The use of free software in West Africa would represent an opportunity to reduce the digital divide with the South. This approach galvanises developers who innovate freely. They are compensated each year by the African Conference of Free Software Users (Rencontre africaine des utilisateurs de logiciels libres).
The appropriation of free software is proving to be a source of employment. It gives rise to competition and a mastery of technology by locals. “When a bug is noted, it is corrected by the community,” explains Karim Koné, IT administrator at the University of Ouagadougou.
In West Africa, the low level of free software production goes hand in hand with marginal usage. Nonetheless, free software is present in certain businesses, in education, etc. The Central Bank of West Africa has installed the OpenOffice suite on all its desktops. It is also engaged in a plan of migrating its servers to Linux. Baobab Edu was developed in Senegalese and Malian educational circles. Akwaaba is used in the Ivory Coast to manage relational databases linking the public administration to businesses.
In Burkina Faso, GestCarpa, locally produced, is used for the management of the Autonomous Fund for the Pecuniary Settlements of Attorneys (Caisse Autonome des Ressources Pécuniaires des Avocats). The servers at the University of Ouagoudougou operate under Linux. Koné asserts that this enables the university to invest in hardware, with the savings made owing to the non-purchases of proprietary licences. Free software “corresponds to our culture of sharing in West Africa. This contributes towards the popularisation of free software because, with free software, the number of computers becomes irrelevant,” maintains Nenna Nmwakanma, Chairman of the Free Software and Open Source Foundation for Africa (FOSSFA).
However, there is mistrust, as a result of the fact that free software is developed rapidly and is proliferating. It can cause fear because there is a belief that “whatever is free is not of good quality,” declares Nwakanma.
Promotion of awareness and adoption
In West Africa, one of the difficulties in the expansion of free software is the lack of human resources. Training is costly, as is software design. “Free software incurs support, developments costs, etc,” states Seydina Ndiaye, a teacher researcher at the Saint-Louis Technical Institute in Senegal. In Burkina Faso, for example, the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications has not defined an action plan for the promotion of free software. The reason? Over and above the lack of political will, there is the virtual non-existence of skills in this domain.
Sylvestre Ouédraogo reproaches developers for the lack of existence of vibrant communities capable of producing and collaborating on programmes. Moreover, a developer who is afraid his idea will be “stolen”, isolates himself and works alone. The spirit of sharing has not yet been accepted. Which means that certain products remain unknown,” deplores Rasmata Compaoré, computer engineer and member of the Burkina Faso Association of Free Software Users (Association Burkinabè des Utilisateurs de Logiciels Libres). This fear is supported by the fact that one member of the community may transform a free code into a proprietary code, and get rich. As a result, the majority of developers “innovate freely and according to their needs, shooting in any direction,” regrets Ouédraogo.
Poor connectivity slows down the work of the few rare developers. “How can you participate in a community when you need four days to upload 400 Megabits (Free Eos)?,” Ouédraogo asks again.
Added to these pitfalls is the relentlessness of the proprietary software publishers, who attempt to counter the proliferation of free software.
Attack of the giants
These publishers carry out dumping. In Burkina, Mali and Senegal as well as in the Ivory Coast, Microsoft is increasing agreements with governments through development aid. “Windows computers are therefore provided with licences which have to be renewed every year, and this renewal requires enormous financial means which we often don’t have. This promotes pirating,” mentions Karim Koné. West African countries thus become simple consumers. The publishers’ strategy is to “let the pirating develop so as to create cohorts of users hooked to their products, before ‘tightening the screws’, as Ouédraogo puts it. Mrs. Ndiaye continues: “Dependence on proprietary software is then ongoing. I can’t really see these multinationals taking on ‘poor Africans’ for reasons of image, and we are therefore far from freeing ourselves from this dependence.”
Up against these multinationals, West Africa has not developed a project for the growth and popularisation of free software. The Asianux project, supported by the Chinese, Japanese and South Korean public authorities is funded up to billions of dollars. The Afrinux project, on the other hand, has still not been ‘unpacked’.
For researcher Seydina Ndiaye, the expansion of free software should not be “based on ideological or ‘political-antiglobalisation’ principles, but rather on an organisational and technical logic.” The absence of this logic means that the “slogans on free software as a tool of redemption for Africa are not convincing,” Ouédraogo believes.
For an emergence of free software, the latter suggests a marketing approach based “on the fact that no product is perfect, and that abandoning proprietary software in favour of free software would never resolve the problems of the African continent.”
For Seydina Ndiaye, free software cannot be the route to the computerisation of West Africa: “the best way to computerisation is via our software development companies, by helping them to extend their skills by supporting them with training courses to get up to date, a voluntarist policy, receive orders from government, the education system, banks, etc.” All software developed for or by the government will replace proprietary software, which will promote mass use,” Rasmata Compaoré confirms.
In order to reflect on the challenges of proper use of knowledge meant to contribute to economic expansion, social integration and democratic governance, FOSSFA will organise IDLELO3, a Panafrican conference on free software, from March 16 to 20 2008 in Dakar, Senegal.