I had the great pleasure of meeting Guido Sohne, one of the leaders of Ghana’s vibrant software developement scene, at Wizards of OS this past week. We’ve got at least a dozen friends in common, but somehow have managed never to meet in Accra. Maybe that’s what technical conferences are for.
Guido helped found FOSSFA, Africa’s first Free and Open Source foundation… and left the organization when he became skeptical about his colleagues commitment to the movement. (He spectulates that some may be more interested in the possibility of raising money for an Open Source organization in Africa than in F/OSS itself…) He gave a bracing, skeptical and very powerful talk at the end of a panel on software development around the world.
Some of Guido’s points regarding the challenges F/OSS face in Africa are familiar ones – it’s hard to sell open source software as free as in “free beer” when no one is paying to use software due to widespread piracy (a point I made in an article for Linux Journal called “Why Free Beer Doesn’t Sell”. Guido goes a step further and argues that piracy is helping Microsoft gain market share. By allowing widespread piracy, Linux desktop software is forced to compete solely on its merits against Windows, since almost all copies of Windows in sub-Saharan Africa are pirated. Linux generally doesn’t do well in this battle, so new users get used to using Windows. Once the market is worth approaching, Microsoft can come in with an antipiracy campaign, the BSA and other groups to move corporate users towards compliance.
The point I found most interesting was Guido’s argument that most African developers are so busy struggling to make ends meet – in an environment where tech equipment costs 2-4x what it does in Europe and the US, where technical books are almost nonexistent, where there are no credit cards to purchase from Amazon – that they don’t have time to share, building code for public consumption. There are counterexamples, like the translate.org.za project, but not many examples of African programmers producing new F/OSS code. He suggests that the African programming community will have to grow greatly, and that the few programmers working in the field will need to get more economic security, before we expect African developers to seriously consider contributing to F/OSS projects.
I suspect his talk came as an eye-opener for many of the folks in the audience. There’s a lot of enthusiasm within the various “free” communities for the potential for their innovations to bring about change in the developing world. Unfortunately, economic realities often get in the way of idealism. Free mesh wireless networks sound like a great idea in bandwidth-rich countries… they’d likely work a little differently in a country where T1 bandwidth costs $5k a month – suddenly the free rider problem looks significantly more important. Here’s hoping Guido’s talk helped some folks understand the complexity of these issues.