Aspiration Paper -- Good to Great FOSS: Learnings from Africa

The International Development Research Centre (IDRC) invited Aspiration to design and facilitate an event focused on Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) development in Africa. The Acacia program at IDRC had funded a number of FOSS initiatives over the last 3 years and had come to the conclusion that knowledge of good practice in FOSS development was extremely varied, and that little documentation existed on how to establish and sustain a FOSS project in a developing country context.

Several of the Open Source projects that IDRC had funded were invited to come together in a workshop to talk and learn about what constitutes good practice in developing an Open Source project in Africa. Good to Great FOSS took place from the 24th to the 26th of October 2007 in Nairobi, Kenya. During the course of this 3-day meeting, projects met, demonstrated their tools, compared processes, discussed challenges facing FOSS practitioners in Africa, and considered what was required to sustain and grow the FOSS movement on the continent.

This paper documents the state of open source software development in Africa from the perspective of the projects that participated in Good to Great FOSS. In addition, the paper includes an overview of best practices for open source development in the African context as detailed by event participants, as well as a summary of recommendations made at the event on how to better support and propagate open source efforts in Africa.

The introductory section of the paper is included below.

Introduction

The International Development Research Centre (IDRC) invited Aspiration to design and facilitate an event focused on Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) development in Africa. Good to Great FOSS took place from the 24th to the 26th of October 2007 in Nairobi, Kenya.

The Acacia program at IDRC had funded a number of FOSS initiatives over the last 3 years and had come to the conclusion that knowledge of good practice in FOSS development was extremely varied, and that little documentation existed on how to establish and sustain a FOSS project in a developing country context.

The decision was made to bring several of the Open Source projects that IDRC had funded together in a workshop to talk and learn about what constitutes good practice in developing an Open Source project in Africa. During the course of this 3-day meeting, projects met, demonstrated their tools, compared processes, discussed challenges facing FOSS practitioners in Africa, and considered what was required to sustain and grow the FOSS movement on the continent.

Goals and focus of this paper

The purpose of this paper is to document the state of open source software development in Africa from the perspective of the projects that participated in Good to Great FOSS. In addition, this paper includes an overview of best practices for open source development in the African context as detailed by event participants, as well as a summary of recommendations made at the event on how to better support and propagate open source efforts in Africa.

The paper is divided into several sections:

  • Challenges for FOSS in Africa examines the current environment and the barriers to success for FOSS projects in the African context.
  • FOSS Community Processes explores and contrasts the non-technical aspects of two African FOSS projects, including how they manage their development while governing and scaling their communities.
  • FOSS Development Processes and Development Environments details the processes and tools used by participants at Good to Great FOSS to manage and deliver their projects.
  • FOSS Licensing contrasts the different licenses used by the projects at Good to Great FOSS, explaining larger license categories and summarizing the related issues of license interoperability.
  • FOSS Business Models and Sustainability surveys the range of of business models extant in the FOSS community, and summarizes a business modeling exercise done at the event.
  • Best Practices for FOSS in Africa provides a set of best practices for open source projects working in the African context.
  • Recommendations for a Better FOSS Future in Africa details ideas put forth by participants on how the FOSS movement in Africa might be better supported and developed.
  • Appendices are provided to document the agenda, the participants, and post-event assessments.

Participating Projects

A diverse group of projects participated in Good to Great FOSS, spanning a range of application areas:

OpenMRS: OpenMRS is a customizable patient-centric electronic medical record (EMR) system. A forms-based system allows updates to be entered at each patient visit. Data can be entered by a physician during patient visits or by data assistants after the fact. The project has developed a rich and open data model for supporting the application. OpenMRS uses the OpenMRS Public License, which is very similar to the Mozilla Public License.

AVOIR/Chisimba: AVOIR (African Virtual Open Initiatives and Resources) is an African network for capacity building in software engineering through Free Software. Chisimba is the Malawi word for "framework", and Chisimba is a rewrite of the KINKY project. Whereas OpenMRS is a dedicated application focused on electronic medical records, Chisimba is a web application framework which can be utilized for building a range of different software applications. The architecture is modular, enabling new functionality be developed independent of all other development.

DrumNet: DrumNet is a supply chain communication platform that utilizes cell phones and the internet to allow end-to-end communications between supply chain players in African agricultural markets. DrumNet is a newer and less mature platform than OpenMRS or Chisimba, and does not as of yet have a community to speak of beyond the two primary developers.

Mifos: Mifos is open source software for microfinance. They are creating a new service model that will increase access to technology for all microfinance institutions, ultimately enabling them to extend their reach to the world’s poor.

Tradenet: Tradenet provides market intelligence for farmers and traders worldwide. Tradenet facilitates communication along supply chains using the internet and mobile phones. The Tradenet platform is not currently open source, and Tradenet participated at Good to Great FOSS in an exploratory context.

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