IDLELO 7 – Uganda’s Open Source Moment

The year was 1997 when as a student at Makerere University, I had the privilege of hobnobbing with a select group of ‘internet techies.’ One of them whom I later got to know was Kiggundu Mukasa had just returned from the USA after spending some time there studying and working. He was the first local advocate of Linux (an Open Source Operating System) and using the software CDs he had returned with, he very willingly shared with those who were already technically astute. Individuals like Paul Bagyenda and Terah Kaggwa are some of the very first I know of that toyed around with Linux in this country.

Our meet-ups used to be in Baghdad (Wandegeya) at the site of the current KCCA market and that is where the first unofficial Linux User Group (LUG) meetings took place. The inspiration that some of us got as a result of the open sharing that used to take place skewed our minds into embracing Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) as the future for this nation and Africa at large.

Being convinced about a cause is one thing while having others buy into the same cause is another. The resistance faced while spreading the FOSS gospel then was so stiff that hadn’t it taken firm determination, Uganda would not be the Open Source beacon of hope that it is today. From Government to the private sector, IT professionals were sceptical of anything Open Source and while some of their reasons were valid, others bordered on mere fear for change of the status-quo.

Over the years, numerous developments have gradually altered local perceptions about FOSS and these include;

  • The increasing clout of FOSS products/companies like Fedora, SuSe, MySQL among others in the IT world.

  • Exposure by many IT professionals to FOSS systems starting with those that got a chance to pursue their studies out of the country.

  • Increasing grip that Proprietary Software companies were having on Software Licensing compliance.

  • The enactment of laws that rendered activities like software piracy illegal.

  • The growth of e-government

  • The limited operational budgets at the disposal of many Government organisations.

  • The Internet Service providers that majorly offered firewall and mail server systems based on FOSS.

  • The existence of a vibrant Linux User group that at one point used to carry out school outreach programmes.

  • Coordinated efforts of FOSS promotion with other African countries through the pan African FOSSFA organisation.

In November 2002, during an ICT Policy and Civil Society Workshop in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, it was agreed that a framework for Open Source Solutions be developed. This process later led to the formation of the Free Software and Open Source Foundation for Africa (FOSSFA) a year later. Come 2004, the first ever African Conference on the Digital Commons was held in South Africa where it was later dubbed IDLELO (meaning common grazing ground). This event is carried out every two years and attracts participants who are actively participating or interested in the FOSS world. IDLELO is to Africa what OSCON is to the USA.

Twelve years later, from the 22nd to 24th of August 2016, Uganda will proudly host IDLELO 7. What makes it even more interesting is the level of Government involvement. After shouting ourselves hoarse for nearly a decade, the local FOSS community had given up on ever seeing the Government of Uganda play an active role in promoting FOSS. However, over the last two years, the National IT Authority of Uganda has warmed up to the idea of integrating FOSS in the Government plans for e-government. A FOSS policy is in advanced stages of being approved thanks to this same organisation pursuing the matter. The financial and logistical support NITA-U has extended to the event clearly shows that this time round, the Government is serious about going in bed with Free Software.

It is therefore a very exciting and emotional moment for many that have seen the baby strides FOSS has taken to gain a foothold in Uganda. Hosting the Who is Who of Africa’s FOSS world is likely to alter our path for the better and for good.

To the delegates coming over, Ugandans are known for their hospitality and we are certain that you will leave a piece of your life in Kampala.

Hubasangaliye

Tubaaniriza

Twabashemererwa

Wajoli i Uganda 

Follow @wirejames on Twitter

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