Page last updated at 08:30 GMT, Monday, 31 May 2010 09:30 UK

Open source marks a new era for African independence

Computer users in the Ivory Coast
A growing community across Africa is coding software to suit their own needs.

BBC World Service

This year marks the 50th anniversary of 17 African states gaining independence.

Now, a wave of homegrown programmers, developers and software makers claim to be heralding a new era of African independence.

Earlier this month, the Idlelo conference, organised by the Free Software and Open Source Foundation for Africa (FOSSFA), brought together the continent's cleverest coding minds at Accra, in Ghana, to discuss new software opportunities in Africa.

Unlike the bigger, foreign developers - who have mainly targeted the urban markets - the coders at this event looked at how to reach the rural, relatively poorer communities of Africa.

In their words, they're people who know how to code, and know the continent.

Import risk

The meeting was hosted at the Kofi Annan Centre of Excellence in ICT. Dorothy Gordon is the centre's director general.

"We have to remember that most of our people are not going to be able to read text messages, whether they're in English or in French or in any European languages.

"We have to develop and localise the applications so that they work in our own languages.

"The whole point of this kind of meeting is to make it happen, and to make it happen faster.

"And it's not necessarily going to be a major vendor who's going to invest in that kind of research and get it to happen."

Big multi-nationals are paying more attention to Africa than ever before. However, this attention has been directed at developing e-government systems.

This, says Ms Gordon, raises new issues when it comes to Africa's independence.

"If you look at the national level, or even if you look at the whole continent, you'll see that many of the technologies we use are imported.

If all your systems are imported, it creates a new kind of dependency, because you're dependant on those companies to keep your country running
Dorothy Gordon

"That means that you are vulnerable. If all your systems are imported, it creates a new kind of dependency, because you're dependant on those companies to keep your country running."

She believes open source software is the solution.

"It allows us to build capacity and competency faster.

"And that means that a young developer gets to the level where they can actually start up their own company much much faster; and that they have a whole network, globally, of people that can mentor them and get them so that they're really operating at a global standard."

Haiti help

The efforts of Africa's open source community are already creating an impact.

Following the Haiti earthquake, those affected could use geotagging software to shout out for supplies - the pleas then appearing on a website called Ushahidi.

The software behind the project was produced by developers from Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, Botswana and many others - including some people from outside the continent.

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"You'd send the message from your village using your mobile phone," explains Ms Gordon.

"And they're able to place you, and aggregate the data so they understand where they should be making the supply available."

The site was so useful it was deployed for use after the Chilean earthquake as well.

Just as mature markets have had to educate and adapt to spending time online, Ms Gordon says that African communities must now learn to protect themselves.

"This is one of the areas that we are really investing energy on in terms of capacity building and awareness raising.

"This is like a new world you're entering, and the same way that we protect ourselves when we're in a strange environment physically, we have to learn how to protect ourselves when we are on the net and we're in that virtual reality."

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