African Open-Source Digital Infrastructures: Evaluating the Landscape

Project Duration

January 2021 – June 2022

Project Description

In 2021, Research ICT Africa was awarded a digital infrastructure grant to evaluate the landscape of African digital infrastructures; and investigate how African participation in the development, maintenance and application of global open-source digital infrastructure can be enhanced.

The research study carried out a quantitative study of African participation in open-source digital infrastructure development, a qualitative study focusing on African-led open-source projects, and a policy case study of South Africa’s open-source drive in the early 2000s.

As we reached the end of the project, here are some high-level findings:

  • The share of African Github (the largest public open-source repository in the world) users is only 2.79%, but there are signs of recent growth across the continent. In Nigeria and Kenya the share of open-source users in Africa has grown from approximately 5% in both countries in 2010 to 22 % and 12% respectively in 2020. Nigeria passed South Africa in 2019 as the country with the most open-source contributors on Github. 
  • From the nine case study (five in South Africa, two in Kenya, one in Uganda, and one in Nigeria), some common themes that are emerged were: (1) A commonly adopted model by African non-profit organisations deploying open-source infrastructure is donor funding, complemented by providing consultancy services on either tools they build or subject matter expert; (2) code is largely written by students, as part of their studies or as they prepare to get into the job market or subject matter expert; and (3) the most successful projects were those with community ownership, where communities suggested ideas and were given the freedom to adapt projects to their needs.
  • The attempts in South Africa to migrate whole government departments or significant institutions to open source in the early 2000s lie abandoned. Some of the insights learned from interviews with key players are:  (1) the information and communication technology (ICT) sector continues to be dominated by technology developed by international Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) and sold and integrated through local intermediaries; (2) the South African technology sector relies heavily on vendor certification for skills creation – a questionable need, considering that many of the skills required are in cloud computing, a domain dominated by open source; (3) Microsoft attempted to entrench their operating systems and Office suite in the basic education system through donations and other means. Microsoft also had a strategy to counter the threat of the Open Document Format (ODF) to their dominance in desktop operating systems and office utility software.

The most obvious constraints to the development of critical digital infrastructure is the lack of access to ICT resources in Africa, including low Internet penetration, the relatively high cost of computing devices and unreliable electrical power.

Key Outputs

The Ford Foundation & Sloan Foundation