Seventeen academics and students from Vi Kenyan affiliate member, Moi University, gathered to discuss the findings of UNCTAD's Information Economy Report 2012 during their first Vi videoconference, held February 13.
The report, focusing on the software industry and developing countries, was presented by one of its co-authors, Cécile Barayre-El Shami (pictured, left).
"Kenya is a leader in the development of mobile money services, and, together with Uganda, it has also been heading the development of e-commerce cyberlaws in the East African Community," she said, underlining the importance of the topic for the country and the region.
However, with four-fifths of global spending on computer software and services currently taking place in developed countries, Africa's one-percent share "may slow down the passage of the continent to the information economy," Barayre warned.
Given its low capital barriers to entry, the software sector represents an interesting opportunity for developing countries in terms of potential employment creation, innovation and export revenue.
The evolving ICT landscape creates new market opportunities for software development, including in low-income countries. Mobile phone subscriptions in LDCs, for instance, soared from nine per 100 persons in 2006, to 41 per 100 in 2011. "The mobile revolution has changed the way in which low-income countries can access information technology, and created potential for new services, such as those in the mobile money sector," noted Barayre.
Broadband access also enables new forms of software development and creates demand for new applications, such as for social media. The number of freelance programmers is on the rise, and cloud computing and the use of free and open source software (FOSS) are increasingly gaining ground.
Several African countries have already made progress in the development of their software and IT services sectors. Some of them, such as Morocco, are more export-oriented, whereas others, such as Kenya, South Africa, Cameroon, Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia, mainly cater to the needs of their domestic markets.
But it is important for developing countries to balance software exports and domestic sales to avoid creating export enclaves while supporting local needs.
According to an UNCTAD survey conducted in the context of the report, national IT/software associations have identified two main barriers to the development of the sector in Africa - limited access to venture capital and lack of government procurement.
The government has an important role to play through public procurement (in many countries it is the top buyer of software), as well as in other areas, in particular in providing affordable ICT infrastructure, a skilled work force, quality standards and certification, and an appropriate legal framework for e-transactions, e-payments and intellectual property rights.
To address these barriers, UNCTAD has conceptualized the notion of "National Software System," a framework for the analysis of the software sector at the national level detailing the various components of an enabling environment for the development of a national software industry. With software producers, users (including the government), the software developer community, universities and research centres at its core, such enabling environment includes legislation, human resources and ICT infrastructure.
"The competitiveness of the system can be improved by the adoption of a national software strategy and interaction between the government and the industry,” Barayre said. "The aim is to find a strategy for each country."
The goal is for developing countries "to move from passive adopters of foreign technology to developers of relevant local applications,” she added. “An active involvement by the governments is needed in order to allow developing countries to become developers themselves.”
International partners can provide support in the area of training, application development and creation of demand by contracting programmers from developing countries to develop software applications for their projects.
In the ensuing discussion, participants inquired about obstacles preventing Kenya and Africa from being more successful in exporting software and using FOSS; the possible negative impacts of IT equipment imports; the focus of the country on labour-intensive vs. capital-intensive sectors; the level of priority to be given to ICTs in (already tight) government budgets; the competing interests in the use of FOSS vs. proprietary software; software piracy and cybercrime; and the role of international partners in assisting developing countries in the development of their software industries.
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