Nairobi — While much of the wired world has been swept off its feet by the free and open source software (FOSS) revolution, Africa has lagged behind. Certain barriers have hindered Africans from taking advantage of the benefits of platforms like Linux, which can save users money and give them more control to modify the software they buy.
Rampant software piracy in countries like Kenya reduces the allure of legitimate and inexpensive solutions, and the general lack of ICT infrastructure and Internet connectivity has slowed adoption of new software technologies.
But things are changing. At least one Kenyan woman is not only on the FOSS bandwagon, but is trying to open the doors for others, especially women.
Dorcas Muthoni runs a start-up company offering open-source software solutions to small and medium Kenyan businesses. She is also trying to bridge the digital gender divide with an African branch of a worldwide group called Linuxchix (www.africalinuxchix.org) she founded in 2004.
Locker room mentality
Deb Richardson, an American, started Linuxchix in 1999 to provide a gentler and more feminine alternative for women (and men) who were intimidated by the "locker room mentality" of male-dominated FOSS discussion groups. Today the group has chapters all over the world, and at least 1,000 official members.
At a lunch meeting downtown with several other high-tech Kenyan "chix," Ms Muthoni, a fast talking 26-year-old, explained that despite training in Computer Science at the University of Nairobi, she didn't learn about open source until a post-graduation job.
"They (employers) wanted to apply free and open source software to their operation, so when I got a job there what struck me was how much knowledge we did not acquire when we were in university," she said.
Computers and women
It was while perusing online FOSS discussions that Ms Muthoni noticed the worldwide Linuxchix site (www.linuxchix.org) and quickly contacted a South African colleague, Ms Anne Badimo, about starting a local African chapter.
Today the African Linuxchix group has branches in 12 countries from Zambia to Ethiopia, and Ms Muthoni estimates up to 500 members altogether. It is quite impressive on a continent not renowned for incorporating women in computing matters.
"This is really quite a new industry in this part of the world and we need to have strategies to make sure we start putting in place measures that will address ways in which we can bring in more women into computers or into ICT in whatever capacity," said Ms Muthoni. "Women need to be comfortable in technology."
One of the greatest problems with getting more girls into ICT and new fields like FOSS is the lack of female mentors to advise and encourage them. That's why Linuxchix targets school-going girls, through contacting schools and teachers and by sponsoring events like a "Software Freedom Day" last year at the Catholic University.
There, Ms Muthoni says, Linuxchix provided attendees with information and free CDs about careers in ICT and the opportunities open-source software can provide.
Ms Muthoni explains her interest in FOSS stems from three basic advantages over proprietary platforms such as Microsoft Windows: cost, control and independence.
The ability to copy FOSS without additional licences saves money. And the ability to control and personalise programs to individual needs leads to more freedom from proprietary software makers. "You are moving what you want to do according to the plan that you have within your organisation, not waiting for the next product or upgrade or next functionality that a vendor will want to introduce," said Ms Muthoni.
Ms Muthoni posits that FOSS is not only a good business solution, but also has the potential to help the state of economic and social development around the world, by providing cheaper and more localised software.
Model of choice
"We want to see free software, which we think is a better option, becoming the software model of choice in development," she said.
With that in mind, Linuxchix is promoting and participating in the second ever IDLELO conference, slated for February 23-25 in Nairobi, where government, industry and non-governmental organisations will gather to discuss how open-source software can help achieve the United Nations Millennium Development Goals.
While Linuxchix is not a profit-making venture, the businesswoman in Ms Muthoni said that it helps her run her company, Openworld, through providing a network of ideas and people's experiences to learn from.
And despite the name, don't mistake Linuxchix to an all-female-member club. Ms Muthoni explains that many men benefit from the group, "because when it comes to knowledge it doesn't matter where it's coming from, there is something for you to learn."
Why linux is favoured by many
Don't let the penguin symbol fool you. In the software world, the open-source software platform Linux is no waddling flightless bird.
In 1991 Linux was created by Finnish student Linus Torvalds as an alternative to an operating system -the software that runs all the other stuff on your computer - called Unix. Though thought to be better than the standard Microsoft DOS system, Unix was proprietary software. Independent programmers couldn't access the "source code", the blueprints of the system that allow them to tweak it and create software for it.
Linux, in addition to other technical qualities, had the advantage of being open source: the blueprints were freely available to all. Programmers loved it and soon an army of 100,000s swore by the upstart and busied themselves programming for and modifying Linux.
Like other FOSS, Linux's great strength is adaptability. When a new piece of hardware arrives, Linux-lovers worldwide play with platform's code and make it compatible. Linux can be found in Macs, PCs, palmtops and even the latest Sony game system, Playstation 3.
While many programmers develop Linux software for pleasure, several companies have succeeded by selling Linux-based programs for profit. The best known is probably Red Hat, which recently announced it would use Linux to program software for the $100-laptop - a development project of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
There are other open-source platforms. FreeBSD, OpenBSD, Squid, and Apache are others with devotees in the FOSS community.