Into Africa: A visit to Kenya on Software Freedom Day, 2012

The first thing you notice about Kenya is that everyone wants to know your name. When you first meet a person from Kenya you ask their name, and you tell them your name. You shake their hand and ask them how they are doing. You ask about their family, and they ask about your family. Then they smile.

I was in Kenya at the invitation of Evans Ikua, the coordinator for LPI in East Africa. I had met Evans several times due to FOSSFA (Free and Open Source Software Foundation for Africa) meetings, and meetings of ict@innovation, a capacity building program funded mostly by the Government of Germany. Evans was coordinating Software Freedom Day (SFD) in Kenya, and wanted me as a speaker. Evans was also the Chairman of the Linux Professional Association of Kenya. To sweeten the invitation, he promised to take me to a national wildlife preserve to watch the wildebeest (also known as GNU) migration (IMAGE BELOW: Evans and maddog off to see migrating GNU).

The flight to Kenya was uneventful, although it took over 17 hours. Fortunately we had allowed for me to arrive Thursday for An Open Source Developer's Challenge that was scheduled for Friday and the Saturday main event, so I could rest up from the flight. Evans placed me in a clean, quiet hotel which was a bit isolated from any stores, but otherwise was fine. They even had free Internet, when it was working....which was not often.

The next day Evans took me to the Open Source Developer's Challenge, which was being hosted at Strathmore University in Nairobi, Kenya. This was a challenge for the university participants to develop an application using Open Source Tools. Unfortunately the bulk of this challenge happened during university break, so only six entries were in the challenge. Evans picked three judges (with me being one of the three) and we listened to the six presentations. There were three main prizes and three “honorable mentions”. Due to the small number of contestants, the day started late, and the number of tea breaks then seemed a bit excessive, but everyone seemed to enjoy themselves.

The next day we went back to Strathmore for the actual festivities of SFD. One of the main speakers there was Dr. Kate Getao, the Director of eGovernment, from the Office of the President of Kenya. In her speech Dr. Getao brought up some issues where she felt using FOSS in Kenya was difficult. Some of these issues were real, and some not-so-real.

An example of a not-so-real issue was that while proprietary products like Microsoft were almost everywhere, why could she not find FOSS when she walked “a few meters”? Later I asked her if she used an Android phone, or a Firefox browser, or read email, or used Google. It turned out that FOSS was even “closer” to her than closed source code.

Another not-so-real issue was being able to afford the software. Yes, FOSS is generally “free” to pull down from the Internet, but Dr. Getao noted that skilled FOSS people earned more money than skilled Microsoft people and were typically harder to find when you need them. While I later acknowledged this to be true, I pointed out that a concerted effort by Kenya's universities to train FOSS people, along with a comprehensive self-training course and LPI certification could come a long way to providing all the support she needed. And this type of work towards making the software “affordable” allowed the money to stay inside of Kenya providing local programming by local people that (in turn) bought local food, stayed in local housing and paid local taxes.

Dr. Getao also talked about all the “white elephant” systems that she was burdened with. Certainly in a country like Kenya, Dr. Getao knows a “white elephant” when she sees one. However, I think it is much better to have an “open” white elephant that you can change and train to meet your needs rather than a “white elephant” whose only trainer has died, or has left to sell other elephants to other people.

Dr. Getao discussed the high staff turnover that government agencies have, because they can not afford to pay the high salaries that industry can afford to pay, and because of this she needs 10,000 people trained in order to find 1000 “exceptional” people that she can use in government. She can not live with only 100 people from Strathmore College to be trained in FOSS. The good news for Dr. Getao here is that Free Software allows many ways of training individuals. Colleges like Strathmore and the Catholic University (who also uses FOSS) are certainly one way of training, but there is also private training companies that can train FOSS people. These companies typically charge money, but the government could subsidize the training costs for individuals, if they wanted to do that.

A second way that the government could get trained people is to further encourage co-operative education, where the students go to work part time and go to school part time to get their degree. I would not have been able to afford my degree in 1969 unless I went to a co-op university (Drexel), and in doing so I also learned that I would rather learn how to program these things called “computers” than to be an electrical engineer. Having the students work as co-op students for the government would be a win-win situation for everyone.

A third way the government could get more trained people is through an apprenticeship program. A little like “co-op”, it can be run independently of a university, but having the student end up with a certification, such as LPI. With apprenticeship, the student works for the government, but under the guidance of a mentor, a “master craftsman” who also works for the government. The student gets paid for the time they work, but they also have to keep proceeding in their studies. The studies can be either through a formal university program, through a private company, or through self-study following a set of objectives set up by the government. Following LPI's objectives for their certification would be a good start.

Finally there is self-study. Forty-three years ago I started programming by reading a book and practicing on a computer owned by the Western Electric Company in Baltimore, Maryland. I was a co-op student studying electrical engineering at the time and working for them. The computer I used ran one program at a time, had 16K words of memory, a half-megabyte hard disk drive and was mostly fed with punched cards. More importantly, it probably cost about 1.5 million dollars when a million dollars was a lot of money. I could not have afforded that computer at home to do self-study. Today a student can study any aspect of computer science with a notebook computer capable of virtualization, running FOSS, or using something like a Raspberry Pi, for a cost of 35 dollars (slightly more since the Pi needs a screen, keyboard and mouse). If the student does not have the money for those, they can practice a LOT of computer science just with a cast-off Pentium system and Free Software. In my talks I traditionally show a group of four or five young people that studied computer science “on their own”, using FOSS, and have done amazing things without a college degree or much money. Many of them are multi-millionaires today.

Which brings up Dr. Getao's last point, that she is a little concerned about the mentality of present day young IT people that everyone wants to be a “Bill Gates” or “Steve Jobs”. This I can not help her with, as it is a point of culture. As long as we continue to praise and recognize people due to their wealth, and at the same time tear down people that do public service, we will continue to have this. When our values as a people come back to those of raising a family, supporting the community, protecting the environment for the next generation, thinking years ahead instead of only months or weeks, then we will see young people follow the proper path.

(IMAGE ABOVE: SFD participants at a reception party hosted by LPI-East Africa and the Linux Professional Association of Kenya)

After Dr. Getao spoke we had a tea break. I was afraid that she would leave before I had a chance to speak, so I captured her on the way out of the door and spoke to her over tea. After the break we came back into the room and I gave my talk. In my talk I spoke to everyone in the room, but mostly to her. I reminded her that good computer people want to be paid, that is true, but they also want exciting, challenging jobs. You do not typically get that type of challenge when all you do is install packaged software.

I spoke of “Total Cost of Ownership”, and while that was important, the real issue was “value of the solution” and “return on investment”. If you can not afford the solution, then you can not have it, but after that you should be looking at how well the solution meets your needs and the value that it brings to your government or business. I gave several examples of how FOSS gave greater value at the same or lower cost (both short-term cost and long-term cost) than closed-source software.

I reminded her that a country has to be able to control the access to the software needed to run it, and not be dependent on outside sources as much as possible. I reminded her that even the largest companies can go out of business. If their country relied on closed-source software, they would be at the whim of market forces outside of Kenya. With FOSS Kenya could find or train the people to maintain and improve the software as needed. I told her that without the well-trained people that FOSS could deliver, it would be hard for Kenya to attract high-tech industry.

In short, I did not talk as much about Software Freedom on Software Freedom day as I talked about control of your software. For when you have control of your software, your company and your life, that is when you have true freedom.

At the end of my talk, Dr. Getao handed me her business card, shook my hand, and smiled.