The State of Open Source in Africa


by Marlene Mhangami, April 4, 2020

The Open Source Africa Festival 2020

At the beginning of this year, I was a keynote speaker at the inaugural Open Source Festival Africa. This was my third time travelling to Nigeria. A few months earlier I had been in Abuja for the annual PyCon Nigeria conference, and was happy to head back! The festival was in Lagos and hosted over 800 OSS enthusiasts from around the continent. I met attendees from diverse backgrounds. Open source designers, university students, experienced PHP devs (yes, those still exist! Sorry that’s an unnecessary dig at PHP) packed the auditorium. For me, it was particularly exciting to meet many Python developers at the conference too! Many of whom, I’d met a few months earlier at Pycon Nigeria. Mannie Young, Kafui Alordo, Chukwudi, and Kelvin Oyanna joined me at the PSF booth. Each representatives of the Python Nigeria or Ghana communities.

From start to finish the conference boasted fantastic talks! Some highlights for me included a talk by Prosper Otemuyiwa. Prosper is an Open Source veteran and shared about his own journey contributing to OSS. His talk gave the audience practical advice on how to grow their skills and gain confidence. I'd recommend looking out for it whenever it’s uploaded on the festivals Youtube channel.

Another highlight was a talk given by Amanda Casari. Amanda is an engineering manager on the Google Open Source team. Her talk examined ecosystems of data science. She gave examples of how open source communities can contribute to fair and inclusive NLP. I got to spend some time with Amanda throughout the conference and saw her walk her talk.

To be honest, I could go through every talk I saw and share how it changed me, but that would make this post too long. Check out the OSCA festival Youtube channel and watch the talks if you can. Eriol Fox, Stephan Walli, Gen Ashley, Aniedi Udo and Moyinoluwadeserve a mention. All brilliant speakers and leaders of note in their respective fields. Also, the OSCA team deserves so much praise. The conference was outstanding! The design was stunning and African inspired and the community was so warm and welcoming! I appreciate the organisers so much for all their hard work! You can have a look at some of the work they're doing here.

A Broader Perspective

Let’s change the pace a bit and take a broad view perspective on the current state of Open Source in Africa. There are 3 key things I’d like to discuss; demographics, distribution and direction.

Demographics

Tim Berners-Lee created the worldwide web in 1989. 11 years after this, in 2000, almost half of the US population had access to the internet. At the same time, 99% of people in Sub-Saharan Africa were still offline. 15 years later in 2016 78% of North America was online, 73% of Europe and only 20% of Sub-Saharan Africa was online. Have a look at this handy graph created by ourworldindata.org

Before I continue, I want to make a note here. Africa is a LARGE continent. For North-America, 78% of their population in 2016 was 279 million people. 20% of Sub-Saharan Africa in 2016 was 206 million people! This is important to keep in mind!

Growth in Africa has been rapid. Ghana and Malawi doubled the number of users using the internet in 3 years. Today there are525 million internet users in Africa, almost double the number of internet users in North America.

So what are the ramifications of this? Africa began to access the internet in 2001, almost a decade after the rest of the world. There are exceptions. For example, South Africa is home to some of the largest and oldest technology companies in the world. South Africa was still under an apartheid regime when many of these formed. Meaning resources like the internet were available only to White elites. For many Africans, these delays in access make it difficult to keep up.

At OSCA, attendee’s consisted primarily of people within their 20s and 30s, and of junior level devs. I imagine that the bulk of the African developer community is made up of students and junior developers. A young community also usually means a young industry. This is not necessarily a bad thing but is something to be aware of.

This demographic characteristic also translates into our OSS project ecosystem. At the moment, you’d struggle to find an OSS project originating from Africa that’s more than 10 years old.

So what are the barriers for growth for young devs in OSS? In a Zimbabwean tech Slack channel, someone brought up the idea of starting a local OSS project. Many people in the group complained that open source is only for the privileged. You need to afford childcare and free time to even start thinking about contributing. In the current economic climate, many developers need to make money to survive. To be honest, in the case of Zimbabwe, I would have to agree. If we could support African OSS developers financially, I believe we'd see a spike in participation. Let's leave this train of thought here for now and move on to the next point.

Distribution

On my way to the festival, I left Harare at 7:20 am and arrived in Lagos almost 13 hours later! To get to Lagos, there were no direct flights. I had to pass through Johannesburg, South Africa and Accra, Ghana. This was also the shortest flight that I could find and it cost approximately USD$700.

Something you’ll hear when talking about travel within Africa is that its expensive! The cost for me flying into Lagos is about the same for me flying to London. I also needed to apply for a visa and paid USD$150 for one. The argument is that Africa is a large continent, but I often think that so is Europe. In-Europe, travel is very reasonable. What comes to mind are infrastructure limitations the continent currently has. But, this is another topic for another day.

All this to say that it’s not easy for me to travel to another African country on a whim. In many ways, this makes collaboration between countries challenging. As I mentioned earlier we have a very high number of people on the continent using the internet. Yet the people that do have access to a strong connection, and have the means to contribute to OSS are dispersed. At the OSCA festival, I found many open source projects, including this list of local projects. I did not find many, if any at all, projects collaborated on by people from across the continent. This is unsettling to me.

Direction

So what does the future of open source in Africa look like? Where are we headed? First of all, in the next few years, we are going to start to see the African technology industry become more mature. This relies on the right resources, support and community. Junior devs are going to turn into intermediate and senior-level devs. Startups are going to become established businesses. So far we’ve seen Africans contributing to OSS projects based outside the continent. Github's State of the Otoverse Report, Africa is creating more developers than anywhere else in the world (read this article for a breakdown.

My prediction is that this growth will continue. We'll also see an increase of pan-African projects from within the continent. I’d also like to think that the hiring of talent from Africa will go up. Many large tech companies have research, product and marketing offices on the continent. Very few have engineering offices that are more than a handful of people. Last year, Andela, laid off more than 400 of its junior developers. This came as a huge disappointment. Andela's CEO, Jeremy Johnson said their target market isnot looking for junior talent, The market is looking for intermediate to senior-level developers instead. If true, this problem can be solved by giving entry-level developers relevant experience.

Conclusion

I’d like to leave you with a few ideas on how you can contribute to the future of OSS in Africa. First of all, if you are a developer or a technology entrepreneur, starting creating! Now more than ever, we need you to create! I will always argue that the urge to create is a human urge, a natural compulsion. African people must take bold steps to make projects that address their needs. The future we hope for depends on it.

For businesses or organisation, think about how you can provide support. Sharing resources, advocating for hiring from the continent or offering mentorship. There are so many ways you can step into this future with us!

This post focuses on defining where we are more. I’ll be sharing another post soon about some practical steps we can all take. I'll also share some steps I’m taking to see the growth of the pan-African open source community.

If you’d like to share your thoughts with me about this post, feel free to share on twitter and tag me there. Or send me an email here.

Thanks so much for reading! If you enjoyed this post, please share :)

Marlene Mhangami