Free software: a springboard for digital technology in Africa?
From the GNU Manifesto to free software
From 1983 to 1985, Dr Richard Stallman, writing in the “GNU Manifesto”, outlined his vision for developing a Unix-style operating system with an open source code.
He publicly expressed his motivations in the following terms: “I consider that the golden rule requires that if I like a program I must share it with other people who like it. Software sellers want to divide the users and conquer them, making each user agree not to share with others. I refuse to break solidarity with other users in this way. I cannot in good conscience sign a nondisclosure agreement or a software license agreement. […] So that I can continue to use computers without dishonor, I have decided to put together a sufficient body of free software so that I will be able to get along without any software that is not free.”
Today, the free software movement has spread beyond the boundaries of Richard Stallman's city through communities of contributors whose knowledge and expertise continue to address specific problems around the world. Using software for any purpose, studying how it works, modifying it while adapting it to our usage needs and redistributing it to the entire community are the foundations of free software, which restores the central place of users in information technology.
Thus we are entering a new era, of information technology that is not imposed on users, communities or cultures. We are writing momentous chapters in the history of information technology, and digital technology in general, which is about providing profound solutions to the need for inclusive development and innovation. We are now talking about information technology which is adaptable and adoptable.
(Re)humanising our information technology for Guinea and Africa
It is now time to (re)humanise information technology and rebuild solidarity among people through digital technology, so that African issues can be solved by Africans, in Africa, with African expertise.
Everyone is asking a fundamental question. Can free software be a springboard for digital technology in Africa?
Today, the free software movement goes beyond information technology itself. We talk a lot more about freedom as an overarching concept than free software alone. This enables us to take free software out of the laboratories, hackerspaces and other “makerspaces”, to show ordinary citizens that free software and the free software movement can provide a blueprint for development in various parts of Africa, including Guinea.
In Africa, we continue to invest a lot of money into education, as this is something we remain committed to. As Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” With this in mind, it would be pertinent to educate and train Africa's young people in a strategic way, empowering them with free knowledge that they can utilise to plan and take stronger action at their own initiative.
In order to train excellent application developers in Africa, African students must have the opportunity to access the source codes of existing software so they can study how they operate. Reviewing codes written by highly skilled developers will enable Africa's youth to gain skills and acquire expertise.
Giving Guinean youth access to free software will strengthen our continent, which suffers from a “double digital divide” when it comes to digital technology. Combining the free software movement with Guinea's youth will produce “made in Guinea” technical experts at our universities with the expertise to resolve Africa's challenges with an African perspective, combining a mix of skills, independence, openness, clarity, sharing, accessibility and collaboration.
We must not prohibit pupils and students at our African universities from sharing software source codes, making copies of software, sharing or helping one another. Unfortunately, this is what we see in many software agreements used on our campuses. African youth are taught division. They are educated to work and learn separately and individually, yet ironically, after obtaining their degrees, we ask them to work collaboratively at companies. If our society needs collective intelligence to survive, we need to teach it and make it our new currency.
African students have experienced starting from zero.
Free software that is accessible and open to all without restriction will allow us to rapidly prototype business ideas based on components of open and modifiable source codes. Let's give each young African the opportunity to create their own job!
These days, free software is everywhere in our daily lives. Spanning free digital mapping, value-added services in mobile telephony, SMS and mobile applications, collaborative platforms, collective intelligence systems, open electronic and open hadware, low-tech home automation, remote irrigation via SMS, land management through online participatory democracy platforms, telemedicine and more, nothing is beyond reach. Our vision of development needs to change now, and urgently. We need to shift our focus to digital inclusion.
Young Africans have already created applications from scratch using free software, and this should inspire us and inspire other young people in Guinea to take action.
The free software movement has given rise to horizontal training methods: learning together through experimentation. During these peer-to-peer learning sessions, participants learn to enhance their skills, but do so collectively. Each training session introduces a new aspect, so that the learner, rather than simply receiving knowledge, gets to share their experience, offer their commitment, present their skills and put them to use for the benefit of others. This is the kind of approach we need to promote and democratise in Guinea.
Another way to stimulate the development of digital technology is by making data publicly available, which will enable the free software movement to take root; in other words, Open Data. Public data must be easily and freely accessible and reusable. Not only is providing data to the public a legal obligation, it also represents a gold mine of invaluable opportunities.
Our African capitals, including Conakry, are evolving within a complex environment driven by a constant need to adapt through the improved application of technologies. And trying out new approaches, far removed from the weaknesses of the industrial model, the overconsumption of resources, the generation of waste and tools disconnected from the needs of users, is also a development focus for Africa.