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Kenya going Open Source route

NAIROBI, Kenya, Mar 23 – Research by Linux Professional Association of Kenya (LPA) on public software procurement has established that the government is currently spending over Sh500 million on proprietary software services and license fees. This amount could double next year, if historical trends continue.

Evans Ikua, LPA Chairman says only a fraction of this would have been incurred on customisation, installation, and training had the government embraced free software as opposed to sold proprietary counterparts whose licenses only inflated costs.

Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) is any computer program that can be freely used, modified and distributed. Software developers can customize, change or add to FOSS.

"Free does not mean \’no cost\’ but developers can change those programs and must agree to share the enhanced program. FOSS has a great potential to create business and learning opportunities in Africa," says Balthas Seibold of InWEnt – Capacity Building International, a not-for-profit organisation from Germany.

The LPA report blames government procurement agents for insisting on particular trademarks, names, patents, designs, types or producers on tender documents contrary to Section 34 of the Public Procurement and Disposal Act of 2005.

“This has effectively and unfairly excluded our FOSS SMEs service providers from participation in public sector software tendering processes” regretted Mr Ikua.

The law requires procuring entities to specify technical requirements, not brands,“ allow for fair and open competition to those who may wish to participate in the procurement proceedings…”

Key among those involved on their campaign supported Business Advocacy Fund was the Public Procurement Oversight Authority (PPOA).

“PPOA has requested LPA to assist correct this procurement bias by proposing a standard way of wording on tender requirements that will allow procurement agents to avoid mentioning trade names and trade marks or company names so that they can comply with the law,” reported Mr Ikua.

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Their concerted agitation for equal access to government business has received a boost from James Rege, MP-Karachuonyo, and Chairman of the Parliamentary committee on Energy, Communications and Public Works.

“Propriety software has impeded our entry into ICTs. Free and Open Source Software is an idea whose time has come. FOSS challenges people to think thus encourages innovation. Its greater use in Kenya is long-overdue,” he said.

Mr Rege was speaking last week at the ict@innovation workshop held at Strathmore University in Nairobi.

“FOSS is easier and quicker to learn – meaning that it can be easily adapted to business processes in the private sector and in improving public service delivery. The government should embrace available and affordable technologies that enable citizens to interface with its functions. This will also help curb corruption as e-government enhances transparency in government," said Mr Rege.

He called on the government to create an enabling environment for local technologies to develop. Just as taxes on tractors were reduced to encourage farming, mobile handsets taxes should be removed to make phones more affordable thus increase their penetration.

Pointing to growing recognition of Open Source Software within government, Information PS Bitange Ndemo on Saturday disclosed that a new FOSS drug management system will save the government in excess of Sh300 million compared with cost of proprietary software they had evaluated.

Mr Ndemo announced that his ministry\’s new Document Management System will be also be FOSS-based.

He predicted, “with infrastructure in place, the demand for content is going to explode, alongside, the demand for young entrepreneurship and content development, will be driven by the readily available FOSS. We must now aggressively market this critical tool.”

“FOSS is an equaliser tool that is enabling many who possibly could not have afforded software to come up with products that are very competitive worldwide. In the past week I have seen FOSS products that can make anyone happy,” he said, hinting at a renewed interest on Open Source Software.

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With parliamentary ICT watchdog committee keen on Open Source Software, a receptive ministry and vocal FOSS advocates, it would appear that the stage is set for FOSS to make inroads into government towards Vision 2030 targets of at least 50 percent of public sector software being locally developed.

 (Alex Gakuru is an ICT Expert and the Chairman, ICT Consumers Association of Kenya.)

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