Computing in Africa is Set to Get a Big Boost

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

The image of Africa as a technological laggard is set to be seriously challenged as a number of developments converge in 2007. Alongside the booming African mobile phone market – itself now getting global attention for innovation – the African computer scene will soon have both the software and hardware that acknowledge the continent’s unique needs while being affordable. Further challenging stereotypes, the continent’s burgeoning and dynamic open source software movement is the subject of a new film by a Danish filmmaker, and the African-made Ubuntu, Linux-based operating system now has a new user manual to help it attract new adherents.

African technological innovation rarely makes headlines in the West. But a Danish filmmaker is changing these perceptions with his film showing the dynamism and enthusiasm behind the open source software movement in Africa. The yet-untitled film, directed by David Madie, is from Eighty Days Productions and is due for release in the spring of 2007. It follows a young computer entrepreneur, Wire Lunghabo James, from Uganda’s Linux Solutions in Africa, who has been instrumental in building the Web’s presence in the country and in East Africa.

“This film will show the characters fighting for what they believe in. This happens to be Open Source, which I think is an important agenda,” director Madie told Tactical Technology Collective ( www.tacticaltech.org), a website “demystifying technology for non-profits.”

Unlike off-the-shelf software, open source software has many advantages. It is free, and no licence fee is required, so as many copies as necessary can be made. It is fully customisable, so local languages and cultural conditions can be taken into consideration. It is a universal language (the most popular is Linux) and thus it is easier to understand how a specific application works. For developing countries, it has the advantage of empowering local programmers and dymistifying computer programming, removing it from the domain of private companies and large government agencies. In 2005 the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) urged African countries to embrace open source software to encourage the growth of indigenous software development.

“I think he (James) is also a role model in the sense that he combines doing a business, with doing social work. To him these things are not opposites: these are things that can perfectly work well together. You can do business in a social manner,” Madie said.

The Ubuntu software programme is a complete, free operating system that emphasizes community, support, and ease of use while refusing to compromise on speed, power, and flexibility. Ubuntu is an ancient African word meaning humanity to others, and its software version is described as Linux for human beings – designed for everyone from computer novices to experts. Ubuntu is the most in-demand Linux system in Africa, and the official guide is aimed at NGOs, home users or small businesses.

One Laptop Per Child Project (OLPC)

In another development, the One Laptop Per Child project (OLPC) has announced the release for general sale of its durable bright green and yellow laptops ready loaded with Linux-based operating systems. Customers in wealthy countries will have to buy two laptops, with the second going to a developing country. Five million will be delivered to the developing world over the summer of 2007. The eventual aim is to sell the machine to developing countries for US $100, but the current cost of the machine is about US $150. The OLPC laptop’s software has been designed to work specifically in an educational context. It has built-in wireless networking and video conferencing so that groups of children can work together. The OLPC project is working with the search engine Google, who will act as “the glue to bind all these kids together”. Google will also help the children publish their work on the internet.

The One Laptop Per Child project (http://wiki.laptop.org/go/Home) has struck its first deal with Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame to provide every school pupil with a laptop computer within the next five years. The laptops and all the support costs will be covered by OLPC.

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