A Case for Open Source
It is a well known fact that civil society organisations are finding it difficult to take advantage of the benefits that information communication technologies (ICTs) provide due to cost and lack of appropriate support. Without resources or capacity to understand the fast developments in the ICT field, many possibly beneficial and cost saving technologies are not understood.
Therefore, even Free Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS) has become a buzz word instead of an opportunity for many organisations. Unfortunately, this means that civil society organisations that play a pivotal role in shaping communities do not gain access to ICT tools important in helping them achieve their mission.
Technology Capacity Building Project
To address these and other important issues, Ungana-Afrika, a non-profit organisation addressing the existing ICT capacity crisis within the development sector, implemented a technology capacity-building and support project for community radio stations in Mpumalanga. The primary aim of the project, supported by the Open Society Foundation of South Africa (OSF-SA), was to help community radio stations to integrate ICTs in their daily operations by developing technology plans, promote new ICT tools for revenue generation, building eReadiness, and provide ICT training for staff and volunteers of the stations. During the course of this project, FLOSS was identified as an important software application necessary for administrative and broadcasting purposes.
In order to ensure buy-in and pro-active interest toward FLOSS, Ungana-Afrika followed a process that transferred as much knowledge and skills as possible to the community radio stations. The first step in the process was to build awareness and understanding of basic technology concepts before introducing the idea of FLOSS. The second step was to expose participants to the benefits of FLOSS applications.
Ungana-Afrika initially chose a few staff members to use and test these applications. This was an important step and generated excitement around the software tools even for the people who were intimidated at first. Once the buy-in was secured, the next step involved station-wide installation and training.
To address different levels of staff competencies, our consultant trained staff members conducted regular one-on-one follow-up meetings. Those who adapted easily to applications were then encouraged to train others to stimulate transfer of skills internally. Eventually on-site support was scaled down and a majority of the support was given virtually.
This process made it easier for community radio stations to adopt FLOSS and share applications in their communities and within the sector. Furthermore, people within stations began to understand the importance of having legal software and that they have options in selecting software that meet their needs.
Various FLOSS applications adopted by the stations were:
OpenOffice (Office Applications)
Turbo Cash (Accounting Package)
Mozilla Thunderbird (e-mail client)
Mozilla Firefox (Internet browser)
E-Base (CRM application)
Audacity (production software)
What Ungana-Afrika learned during the course of the project was that people without basic computer skills easily adapted to FLOSS applications, especially when support was available. In order to get full participation from all station members it is important to have internal leadership championing the process and development. Unfortunately, some people tend to be reserved with external support providers at first. This is understandable as some of the stations mentioned that they normally do not receive quality services from consultants despite the high fees they often are required to pay. Lastly, it should be understood that language is an important factor during new interventions. Without being able to communicate in local languages, it is more difficult to provide support at the grassroots level.
In this particular project, community radio stations were able to start using FLOSS with focused support and follow-up. We feel that to achieve larger scale FLOSS success, practitioners and organisations in the ICT for Development field need to create more awareness. We need to contribute to the stability of FLOSS applications to reduce the requirement for heavy support. We need to mobilise computer vendors to give civil society organisations the option to purchase new computers with FLOSS applications, as more FLOSS service providers willing to work with civil society.
Lastly, the FLOSS movement needs donor support not only to develop FLOSS, but also to ensure it is well integrated in civil society and SMEs.
- Tshepo Sebata Thlaku is a Programme Manager (Regional eRiding) for Ungana-Afrika.