Monday, April 26, 2010

The adoption and use of Linux in Africa- A detailed African perspective

My last article about spreading Linux here in Africa and other developing places seemed to have sparked off some interesting debate about what really hinders the spreading of FOSS in general and Linux in particular on this continent. FOSS blogging giants like Mr Glyn Moody are among those that added their voices to the debate.

For the sake of clarity, I would like us to take a detailed look (from the perspective of an African living in Africa) at what I strongly and sincerely believe are obstacles to the adoption and use of Free and Open Source Software. For ease of reading, I would be dividing this article into 2 parts - the environmental factors and the software/vendor factors. For the sake of simplicity, I would also be using my country Ghana as a microcosm for the African continent.

The Environmental Factors
These are factors that are mostly out of the control of everyday people. They are factors that militate against the general development of information and communication technology. They can be broken down as follows

Infrastructure
The infrastructure on which a vibrant ICT network can be built is itself virtually nonexistent or are out of date. Talk of telephone lines, and I mean fixed lines. Those are slowly but surely being obliterated by the popularity of mobile networks. However, it must be noted that at the end of the day, no serious communication technology can thrive on mobile networks because they are hugely expensive as compared to fixed lines (at least over here). Then too we can talk of electricity supply which is more erratic than an epileptic seizure. It will be a big grace to you should you succeed in having power supply for one whole month without some nonsensical, unannounced interruption. And to date there still are places that do not even have power supply at all. 

Bandwidth
Directly flowing from the fist point is the issue of bandwidth. Today, mobile internet is the largest source of internet connectivity for majority of the people. However, using such a means as a primary source of internet connectivity can be very expensive. If you have a 1GB bandwidth quota per month, how much of that will you be willing to dedicate to installing updates or software packages or even to download a 700MB ISO image?

Cost of hardware
Over the last decade, the cost of computers have drastically reduced. But, it is important to put cost here into proper context. The computers I am talking about are the mostly discarded ones from the advanced countries which are more of electronic waste than usable items to me. As an example, about 7 years ago, the cost of an Intel Pentium 2 machine with 128MB Ram and 20GB HDD was roughly 400-500 US Dollars. Today, the same machine can be bought for about a $100. But in all sincerity, how many of you will be happy to use such a machine in the context of todays increasingly powerful computers?

Now even such 'cheap' prices are beyond the means of a greater number of people. The laptop which I use was bought for $910 in 2008 and guess the specs, a 2Ghz Intel Celeron Processor with 512MB of Ram and 80GB of HDD. Funny right? Yea. The simple point worth noting here is that in todays context, the prices of computers are still very expensive and are out of the reach of a majority of the people. 

Knowledge
If the majority of the population is unlettered, how do you expect them to use computers in the first place. Sure I know even in the US, most educated people don't know much about ICT. But teaching such people is easier than unlettered ones. Then there is the almost total lack of knowledge outside the Microsoft-Windows-MSCE-MS Office world of computing. Let me site an example. Last week I walked into an internet cafe and the following ensued between me and an attendant there

Me: Hi, do you have a wired connection where I can use on my lappy to download the wireless driver?
Attendant: What OS do you use?
Me: Oh its Ubuntu. I am running the beta release aka Lucid Lynx. 
Attendant: {Grins broadly} Come on man, those are old and out of date OSs. The trend now is Vista [shudder] and 7. Why are you running a server on your lappy or what?
Me: {Stunned, don't know what to say} Ah. No. Ok Don't worry. I will come back. Let me check at the other place. Thanks anyway.

Can you actually believe that? This is an attendant who is supposed to shepherd people that come to the cafe. Then too I have seen only one Linux certification course being offered by a computer training school here. On their poster I saw SUSE Linux Admin and called to find out more. I was told they had put that course on hold for now because they were not having enough people register for it. Hm. Now ask about Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer and see the response. Of course I have not been to all the computer training schools here, but this one is a major player and the biggest. How can you expect something that is virtually unknown to a people to gain any significant traction with them?

The four factors above are what I call the broad environmental factors that impede or are likely to impede the use and adoption of FOSS in general and Linux in particular here on the African continent. Some of these factors as I said in the beginning are beyond the control of any individual, some too are not. In the next article, I would entreat you to join me in discussing what I call the software/vendor obstacles to the success of FOSS in Africa. If you are an African, please join the discussion by sharing your personal opinion of what you think are the obstacles.

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