Open Source Lights Up Darkest Africa

Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria....countries in Africa that some people have to use an atlas (or at least Google Maps) to locate. While low cost computers, networking hardware and software are helping these countries develop the computer infrastructure they need those are only part of the answer. To really establish a sustainable infrastructure a lot of these countries, who may have been under colonial rule for decades, also need training in entrepreneurship and capacity building.

A number of years ago I started working with a company called InWent Capacity Building International. Based in Germany, InWent works with the German government, the United Nations and various countries on projects to “teach the teachers” and build economic capacity. Since the German government had embraced Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) early on, it was fairly easy to get InWent to recognize FOSS as advantageous for some of the projects the countries were undertaking.

Training developed by Inwent and its sister organizations is not just about creating jobs for people in IT, but also making sure that the people supporting Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) in the IT space are well prepared for today's challenges. Having an internationally recognized certification such as LPI (versus a certification created by either a local company or one that is created by a specific company for their distribution or hardware) also gives the end customer a comfortable feeling that their support people have the same level of training as in other countries, and globally recognized capabilities.

I think Evans Ikua, the FOSS Certification manager for ict@innovation said it best:

“The kind of relationship that ict@innovation (FOSSFA/inWent) is having with the LPI is all about building the capacities of African SMEs to assist them to be able to offer better quality services using FOSS.”

Several times I have participated in The African Conference on FOSS and the Digital Commons, called “Idlelo”, and this year I was lucky enough to go to Ghana and see that part of Africa first-hand. While there I gave a full day of training on “Making Money With Free Software” and participated in some workshops that the Fedora Ambassadors put together.

Later on various other people got together for some “refreshments”, because it is one thing to share technical knowledge, and another to share friendship and respect. I believe technology and friendship are equally important.

Some issues are different in Africa than other places, of course. Various networking protocols may have more importance in areas where newer equipment has not yet penetrated. Local laws may influence systems administration practices. This is why FOSSFA (the Free and Open Source Software Foundation for Africa) selected seven African Linux experts to help develop Africa-specific materials to help train people for taking the LPI tests. FOSSFA is going to publish the materials they generated on the Internet to allow others to benefit.

We have all heard “I can not find support” as a reason for not using FOSS. By having a program where a person is formally tested, you can then (with their permission) make a list of those people available to people looking for support. This helps more and more people use FOSS, particularly in places like Africa, where any resources might normally be spread very thin.

Of course a certification program has to also be affordable. LPI works with InWent and FOSSFA organizations to try and keep the pricing for the testing as low as possible, but just separating the testing from the training helps both the prospective student, by allowing them to select their best method of training, and the prospective instructors who can now compete with the best and lowest-cost methods of training the students.

In various countries around the world students learn by going to a school (either public or private), by reading and practicing on their own, or by on-the-job training. InWent and FOSSFA are also pursuing the concept of a mentoring program for students. Mentoring is a great way for more senior systems administrators to give back to the younger system administrators in their community, and for the younger people to get real-life experience in maintaining FOSS systems.

In addition to mentoring for systems administration, there is also a program called AVOIR in Africa linking 16 different universities to increase the number of FOSS programmers in Africa.

Finally, InWent and FOSSFA have jointly developed a collection of business models suited for African businesses. African SMEs tend (for the most part) to be somewhat smaller than “western” businesses, have different needs and therefore need adjusting in some of their business models from business models used elsewhere. These business models and other training material developed by InWent and FOSSFA can be found at http://www.ict-innovation.fossfa.net/

Warmest regards,

maddog