Bridging the technology gap with Free and Open Source Software






Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) is taking off in East Africa, according to Emanuel Feruzi, Managing Director of the Tanzania-based IT company Tri Labs. ‘Techies’, students and also businesses are beginning to show an interest in these solutions. FOSS allows users to adapt the software’s source code to meet specific needs – without the licence costs which come with proprietary software. One area where this is very useful is in localising software into Swahili, one of Africa’s major vernacular languages, making ICTs accessible to all. eLearning Africa asked Emanuel Feruzi, one of the keynote speakers at the eLA conference 2011, about the results.

eLA: How is the Swahili localisation of software progressing in Tanzania?

Emanuel Feruzi: For me, software localisation has one main goal: to make sure that computer users can interact with software in their native language. In doing so, we are aiming to have more people using computers without worrying about the language barrier.

Swahili is spoken by at least 80 million people across East and Central Africa, some figures even suggest 150 million. Many of those are Tanzanians. There is a definite need for us to localise software into Swahili. There have been sporadic efforts, but there is still a lack of coordination when it comes to doing this on a large scale.

Teams working on Swahili localisation:

  • The African Network for Localization (ANLoc): There are joint global efforts focusing on the localisation of software and the creation of tools such as keyboard layout, fonts, spell checkers and so on. There are volunteers for most African languages. This is the group I am most heavily involved with because of the better tools, support and communication with the mainstream developers of the different software. Tri Labs has been providing technical support and sometimes funded activities for this group.
  • tzLUG Localization: This is a small group of Linux users who are interested in making sure that we have some Swahili software.
  • Individuals: There is lots of individual effort, especially from Kenya, with people really working hard on making software available in Swahili.
  • Multinational companies: Microsoft, Google, Facebook and others have invested heavily in localising their products and services into Swahili.

eLA: What is the potential for Swahili localisation?

I would say if we have a coordinated effort in localisation, the potential is limitless. We need to share the experiences, and the terminology and tools that have been used in each of these projects. I attended Human Language Technology for Development (HLTD 2011) in Alexandria, Egypt, and one of the issues was that governments must be involved and there must be policies around it. Egypt, for example, has made it a policy that all products seeking a market in Egypt must have Arabic documentation, manuals or instructions, and the software interface must be localized into Arabic.

So we need to come together as computer scientists, language experts, with the help of the government and the private sector, and make sure that software is accessible in Swahili. And not only software, but also other tools such as speech checkers, machine translators, text-to-speech recognition tools, etc.

We should be able to reach a point where a medical instruction in Chinese can easily be translated into Swahili using a tool in Swahili.

eLA: What are the three latest trends in Free and Open Source Software in (East) Africa?

Emanuel Feruzi: Because of software piracy, it is still very difficult to explain the difference between proprietary and Free and Open Source Software in most parts of Africa, especially Tanzania.

But lately I have observed a great response and greater acceptance, especially within the student and developer communities. Students are extremely motivated to use Free and Open Source Software for a number of reasons: It is free and also virus-free and to some it is just new. As for developers, their interest is down to the availability of good and stable tools and technologies in the Free and Open Source community. Think of how many of today’s websites are running on Apache Server and are developed in PHP, Python and Java.

The use of business systems has also increased. In the last two years I have heard of a dozen companies which have started using or which have moved to Free and Open Source solutions. Joomla, SugarCRM, MediaWiki, WordPress and Ubuntu are now well known even among the non-technical communities. So to some degree there is a level of acceptance of Free and Open Source solutions in the business world.

‘Techies’ are now recognising the need to learn about the use of Free and Open Source technologies. At Tri Labs, we received a great response when we announced a course on Web Development (using PHP, MySQL and jQuery), an Introduction to Linux (using Ubuntu) and System Administration (setting up and managing various servers). This is a clear indication that the ‘techies’ have recognised the promising future of Free and Open Source and they want and need to be part of it.

We need academic institutions to take note of this and include it in their curriculum, or at least allow external ‘techies’ to come in and run workshops and training sessions to make sure their graduates are also relevant to the Free and Open Source market.

eLA: You run ICT workshops for lecturers and students. What needs to be done most urgently to develop the ICT skills of young people?

Emanuel Feruzi: The most immediate problem is the lack of facilities. Participants with computers usually benefit more than those who depend on handwritten notes or have to wait until their friends are finished before they can give it a try.

A number of things can be done to improve ICT skills.

Firstly, educational institutions should position content in line with the latest trends. Secondly, there is currently more emphasis on theory rather than on the practical skills, and I think it should be the other way around. If it were up to me, the ratio would be 65 percent practical and 35 percent theory. Thirdly, private industry should be involved in improving skills. This can be done by providing people with an opportunity to practice in their companies.

And finally, knowledge sharing is key, especially for those who have the knowledge and technical skills and the time to spend sharing it with those who need it.

eLA: Apart from the government, what can we as individuals do to improve the ICT situation in Tanzania, especially in areas where ICT is not explored?

Emanuel Feruzi: We all have a part to play. All it takes is time, willingness and, lastly, money. But with willingness in place, the rest is easy. Existing technologies allows for easy set-up of computer labs – think of thin-clients, where one computer can serve up to 30 thin-clients.

Companies could send or sponsor ICT experts to go and teach in schools during the holidays. This would help students to familiarise themselves with ICT earlier and get to grips with computers as a working tool. Also second-hand computers can be donated to schools and community centres.

So let’s all get involved and not simply expect the government to take the initiative.


At eLearning Africa 2011, Emanuel Feruzi will deliver his keynote speech in the Opening Plenary on Wednesday, 25 May 2011, from 18:00 – 19:30.

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