Left Behind, again

Published on 3rd May 2005

Software production is billed as the best entry point for Africa into the Information Technology (IT) juggernaut. IT is one of the most critical developments powering growth in other areas, and the lack of it hampering economic growth in Africa. Within the overall set of technologies that make up IT, experts say, software is the most important since other technologies almost entirely depend on it.


Compared to hardware production, software production has much lower entry barriers because it is less capital-intensive, more labor- intensive, with a lower rate of observation, and at least for certain types of software it has far fewer economies of scale.


Locally developed software cuts down costs because it is downloaded free of charge, creating jobs in the process, as one would no longer have to be an expert in Microsoft. As a result, Africa should break its dependency on patented software such as Microsoft if it wants to speed up its development process, markets analysts say.


Advocacy is a critical area that should be carried along with the African innovation and talent, especially in educating the continent’s decision-makers on government and industry and the merits of using local software. Alongside the mainstream industries, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and community service organizations (CSOs) are already pegged as beneficiaries for the enthusiasm and passion of software developers.


In order to establish a software industry, Africa should develop a regional technological policy to suit it and develop a coherent position on a range of issues including the use of open source of software alternatives.


Computer software has become the livelihood of business, industry, and government. So the development of a local software industry can lead to many positive changes, and is a necessity if African countries are to adapt a technology that suits local needs.


Software production has become an industry in several other continents around the world and, as they have shown, it is essential for the growth of the economies of the less developed countries. Programs to promote strong and indigenous software industries should thus be made a priority.


However, different regions in the continent are currently at different stages of information and communication technology (ICT) implementation, and thus the open source software can act as an eye opener for the software industry. Open source software is distributed by the proprietary software companies that have a copyright giving them the exclusive rights to publish, copy, modify and distribute the software.


It is therefore eligible in the face of rapidly changing technological advancements, and the exorbitant cost of proprietary hardware and software solutions, which discriminate against Africa in its attempt to participate in Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) for development, hence the need for Free and Open Source Software (FOSS).


This is a global trend toward FOSS solutions emerging in the local market, since it has become a viable, cost effective and sustainable option for Africa’s participation in ICTs for development. It has challenged the preconceptions on how software is produced and distributed. But because they are not yet hooked, Africans represent the greatest threat to software companies.


Not only is there the threat that they might open source from the beginning and never get hooked on proprietary software, but even worse is the possible consequence of Africa going free and open source. The ‘public relation’ effect of Africa successfully going open source would also impact upon US and European markets and would accelerate the collapse of, say, Microsoft\'s formerly stable income stream.


If Africa went free and open source, African open source companies could become the world\'s leaders and could then invade the US market and other market segments in the world where the uptake of the technology is high.


There are three alternatives. Firstly, is to mandate open source as many European institutions have already done. This will kick-start an African IT industry and would earn foreign exchange to create a world-beating industry.


Secondly, governments and the private sector could sponsor and encourage a free and open source industry while allowing some institutions to adopt proprietary software. This will lead the growth of proprietary software companies. A case in point is Thailand where the existence of a government-supported cheap computer with Linux installed has led to Microsoft offering unbeatable deals for Windows XP.


The infrastructure must be put in place to make sure the technology not only reaches the people, but also sustainable. The most important task is to produce, manage and deliver relevant information systems appropriately within the continent.


The best strategy for prospective African software firms is to provide software services for local markets, instead of trying to jump into packaged software or export markets. Although India\'s export experience provides a model for Africa, there is a second, stronger argument against the export-oriented approach: that Africa currently faces far too many barriers to enter this market.


These barriers include lack of skills. Though software exports are often ‘low-skilled,’ they still require at least a graduate with in-depth technical experience. Such workers are in short supply in Africa.


Software export trade, which renders another benefit if Africa was to develop its own industry, has increasing demand. It increasingly demands a sizeable installed computer base, reliable and pervasive telecommunications links both domestically and internationally and reliable power supply. Very few African countries can yet claim to provide this.


Exports are based on understanding your market and having trading contacts. Such information is not readily available.  In addition, African nations face the difficulties of any latecomer to a market. Countries like India, Singapore and the Philippines, which arrived on the export scene many years ago, have already developed the requisite skills, contacts, policies and infrastructure that are so lacking in Africa.


As a result, these established players would continually consolidate their position while squeezing out Africa’s newcomers. There are, of course, a few producers in countries such as Egypt and South Africa who export software. Unfortunately, they have tended to do more harm than good in terms of image because they are the exception, not the rule, and the focus of the African software industry attention must be placed elsewhere.


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