Open Source for Developing Countries: Looking for Penguins at the Horn of Africa

In April 2004, Jan Muehlig and Jutta Horstmann of relevantive AG set out to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The aim is to set up a project that might support Ethiopian people in connecting to the new possibilities offered by Open Source Software and to make use of them in a sustainable way. This included providing knowledge on open source technologies, initiating a project that might work as a blueprint for similar future projects in Ethiopia or other African countries and last but not least understanding and gathering knowledge on culture specific usage of technology.

In April 2004, Jan Muehlig and Jutta Horstmann of relevantive AG set out to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The aim is to set up a project that might support Ethiopian people in connecting to the new possibilities offered by Open Source Software and to make use of them in a sustainable way. This included providing knowledge on open source technologies, initiating a project that might work as a blueprint for similar future projects in Ethiopia or other African countries and last but not least understanding and gathering knowledge on culture specific usage of technology. Travelling to Ethiopia equipped not only with insect repellent and hiking boots, but also clean white shirts and laptops – the idea first sounds strange to most people. We want to pass some weeks in an interesting country without only staying on the tourist paths – and at the same time do something useful for the host country: Apply our knowledges to their needs. As our company, relevantive AG, is an active Open Source supporter and service supplier [1] and Ethiopia is kind of a white spot on the world map of Linux distribution, the decision was quickly reached to use our trip for some Open Source advocacy [2].

Some Facts on Ethiopia

“Unique among African countries, the ancient Ethiopian monarchy maintained its freedom from colonial rule, one exception being the Italian occupation of 1936-41. In 1974 a military junta, the Derg, deposed Emperor Haile SELASSIE (who had ruled since 1930) and established a socialist state. Torn by bloody coups, uprisings, wide-scale drought, and massive refugee problems, the regime was finally toppled by a coalition of rebel forces, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), in 1991. A constitution was adopted in 1994 and Ethiopia's first multiparty elections were held in 1995. A two and a half year border war with Eritrea ended with a peace treaty on 12 December 2000. Final demarcation of the boundary is currently on hold due to Ethiopian objections to an international commission's finding requiring it to surrender sensitive territory.” [3] The population is estimated at more than 66 millions (all details see [3], July 2003). It is divided into about 80 different ethnic groups, the largest being Oromo 40%, Amhara and Tigre 32%, Sidamo 9%, Shankella 6%, Somali 6%, Afar 4%. The main language is amharic, english being the major foreign language taught in schools. Literacy is at about 43% in total, while 50% of the men can read, but only 35% of the women. The average annual income is 108 US$ (2004, [4]), but one has to keep in mind the large gap between poor and super-rich, as well as between urban and country people. When we visited Addis, a taxi driver earned 130 Birr (about 13 Euro) per day. In 2004, there is still only one Internet provider, the governmental owned Telecom Ethiopia. About 50,000 ethiopians are online (2004, [5]). Linux is used only by a handful of people, the Linux Counter [6] listing 7 registered users. There is no Linux User Group listed [7], and at our stay there was no known group at least in Addis. Addis Ababa is the capital of Ethiopia. It is situated at the center of Ethiopia, 2300-3000 meters above sea level. The location is not only the most fertile in Ethiopia, but also because of its height not infested with Malaria. The climate is warm and mild, with average temperature around 18° Celsius. The population is about 3.5 million [8].

The Setting in Addis Ababa

We chose Ethiopia for the simple reason that we got a local contact in Addis Ababa from University times: Mr Joerg Weinerth, a German working at the Goethe Institut (German Cultural Institute). This contact proved to be very useful as well for our stay as for our project aims. He provided us with accomodation and an extremely helpful Ethiopian driver and guide, Mr Tibebe Beyene. Furthermore, the Goethe Institut would not only be our “base station” for meeting people and checking our email – they would also give us the opportunity to hold a presentation on Linux at their location and be the first institution to migrate their PCs from Windows to Linux after listening to our argumentation (more on this later).

Before starting to Addis, we were looking on the Internet for names connected to Open Source in Ethiopia. The only valuable result was Mr Daniel Yacob, computer scientist at Addis Ababa University and Indiana University, now director of Ge'ez Frontier Foundation [9]. Mr Yacob is very active in the amharic translation and localization of Open Source Software. He is currently working on an amharic translation of the Gnome Desktop Environment, which is about half completed [10]. As he was not in Ethiopia at the time of our stay, he provided us with the name of his friend Dr Dawit Bekele, Head of Computer Science Department of Addis Ababa University (AAU) [11].

Meeting People

Daniel Yacob as well as Joerg Weinerth provided us with some basic facts concerning our argumentation pro Linux in Addis. First, Open Source Software being free of cost was no advantage, as most of the software in use is either provided by development aid or pirate copies. Second, developing Open Source Software voluntarily in one's spare time would find no supporters, as the need for paid work is overwhelming. Third, one of the major advantages of Linux turnes out to be its security concept and invulnerability towards viruses. As the local knowledge regarding computer/network security is very low and – because of low bandwidth – the stakes for downloading the latest patches and anti-virus signatures are very high, keeping computers free of exploits is highly valuated. Apart from our meeting with Dr Dawit Bekele (AAU), our appointments develope by chance or by word-of-mouth.

On Tuesday (03/30/04) we meet the brother of the Goethe-Institut's PR officer, a computer science graduate of AAU's School of Information System Technology (SIST). Having already heard of Linux, but never used it, he is very interested. There are Linux machines in his computing lab at SIST, but, as he said, nobody uses them for lack of experience. He promises to provide us with an appointment with the head of SIST some days later. On the same day, we meet the head of the Goethe Institut, Dr Werner-Dieter Klucke (Councellor at the German Embassy for Press and Cultural Affairs). He is aware of the German Federal Government's activities towards extending the usage of Open Source Software in German administration and very interested in our argumentation of the advantages and opportunities provided by Linux for developing countries.

Some days later, it turnes out as a result of this talk, that the Goethe Institut Addis Ababa decides to migrate its three Internet Cafe computers from Windows 2000 to Linux (mainly for security reasons – they are totally infested with viruses and commercial spyware). Also on this day and at the Goethe Institut, we are addressed by a German anthropologist. Being a Linux user himself, he supportes our Open Source promotion strongly. By chance, an Ethiopian friend of his, Dr Likissa Dinssa, is the owner of the country's largest private college. We agree on meeting Dr Dinssa two days later.

Wednesday (03/31/04) startes with the appointment at AAU's computer science department, meeting Dr Dawit Bekele. Our interest is to learn about the situation of information and communication technology (ICT) in Ethiopia in general and of Linux in particular. Dr Bekele has been using Linux for many years. Starting this year, he is also giving lectures on this subject and has some graduates working on the amharic localization of the OpenCMS Open Source Content Management System. Furthermore, he conducted a study for the Ethiopian Government concerning ICT capacity building, where he promoted Open Source Software.

His main arguments: First, avoiding the problem of software piracy. The majority of the software in use in Ethiopia is illegal – but in the near future there will be mechanisms to deny illegal copying. The government as well as any institution depending on software has to be aware of this and be able to change to real free software on short notice if they don't want to (or are not able to) acquire proprietary software. Second, ease of localization. As Open Source Software is highly adaptable to local needs, an amharic translation is much more easily acquired than relying on Microsoft's feeble interest in an amharic Windows version. So Dr Bekele aims at developing AAU's computer science department into Ethiopia's “center for localization”.

According to Dr Bekele, the main drawback for Open Source Software is the common opinion “If we share, we lose”, regarding the sharing of code by open sourcing it. The Ethiopian government, for example, invests strongly into software development. But instead of sharing the code they own with other ministries and administrations, they keep it closed and to their own. After some years it is obsolete and has to be rewritten – more than often from scratch. Even if people are interested in Open Source software, it is difficult to get started. Linux being freely available on the Internet is no real advantage – because of low bandwidth at the University, it is only possible to download some software at the United Nations headquarter. To get students into Open Source development, it is necessary to first raise some funding for them – otherwise they have to work extensively besides their studies. The Ford Fundation currently supports the department's work on the OpenCMS project.

As for the relations between Joerg Weinerth and the AAU's Institute of Ethiopian Studies (IES), our next appointment on that day was the director of the IES [12]. The IES houses an impressive multimedia library on Ethiopian culture [13]. At the moment, the library's catalogue system is getting digitalized, funded by the Iranian government, which is sending IT experts from Teheran. After a short introduction to Open Source Software from our side, the director invites the IES multimedia lab's administrator, Mr Ebrahim Kassa, to the talk. He had already heard about Linux, but never used it before. We were told that the library automatization project would be backed by Microsoft SQL Server, a decision based on the Iranis' experience with this software. As both the director and the system administrator are very interested in the opportunities provided by Open Source Software especially regarding library systems, we decide on a further appointment with Mr Kassa on the following week.

On Thursday, 1st of April, we first meet the head of the School of Information System Technology of AAU. He showes no interest in the possibilities of Open Source Software regarding especially developing countries. Nevertheless he is using Linux as a tool for teaching special features of Operating Systems in his lecture on this topic. The School of Information System Technology is a postgraduate programme based on diplomas in the fields of mathematics, statistics or engineering. The computer labs are equipped with Windows machines (licensed software in this case, being Dell PCs pre-shipped with Microsoft software). Also the programming courses center on Microsoft products, concerning either C++ or Visual Basic for rapid application development.

In the evening of the same day, we meet Dr Likissa Dinssa, President of Dandii Boru Computer College [14], for a much more inspired talk and dinner. This private college has branches in six further Ethiopian cities besides Addis. Dr Dinssa has not heard much about Linux yet, but what most of all appealed to him was the possibility of freeing his business of the Microsoft monopoly. We decide to stay in contact and as far as we know, he is at the moment thinking about starting Linux courses at his colleges.

After four days of talking Linux, we decide to take some time off and explore the city of Addis Ababa and its surroundings [15].

On Monday, 5th of April, we returne to the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, to show Linux (SuSE/KDE as well as Knoppix) to Mr Ebrahim Kassa of the multimedia lab. We also talke about the automatization of the library with one of the Iranian IT experts. He tries to persuade us of the advantages of Microsoft SQL Server, but was not very successful in this. So we left Mr Kassa with a list of Open Source library tools [16], which might prove itself useful in the future. The rest of the day is spent on preparing our presentation, which we have to deliver at the Goethe-Institut on the next day.

Our lecture “Information Technology and Development – Connecting Ethiopia to the Internet Age by Free and Open Source Software” is scheduled on Tuesday (04/06) at 6 p.m. at the Goethe-Institut [17]. Even before six o'clock, the lecture hall is already full – altogether 130 people show up. The presentation lasts about an hour, with the following discussion nearly one more hour. The questions range from the possibilty of prolonged usage of old hardware with Linux over the accountability of Open Source developers for their programs to showing “the source code” of Linux to the audience. Joerg Weinerth announced the introduction of Linux on the Goethe-Institut's Internet Cafe computers to the audience.

On the next day (Wednesday, April 7th) we start with the installation. As the most up to date Linux version we had brought was SuSE 9.0, we decided to install this distribution – even if there is no amharic translation available yet. Mandrake and Red Hat offer this localization, but as we had no possibility for downloading the packages, we stuck to the one we brought – in the hope that there will develop a collaboration between the Goethe-Institut and the Open Source class at the AAU's computer science department for changing to an amharic Linux version in the future.

All in all, the migration of the three Internet Cafe computer took us three half-days. The main problem turned out to use the printer shared by another Windows computer via Samba. Not only is it necessary to use a special port/spooler on the Windows machine, also was the SuSE YaST2 Samba Printer Setup corrupted [18]. We are still looking for a “real” Linux user in Addis, with whom we could probably set up some Open Source project for Ethiopia. In our talk with Dr Bekele, he mentioned one Ethiopian guy who attended Africa Source: African Free and Open Source Software Developers Meeting, hosted in Namibia March 15th – 19th, 2004 [19]. With further support of Mr Yacob, we manage to find and contact this participant, Mr Mekuannent Addis Kelemu.

We meet Mr Kelemu on Wednesday, April 7th. Working as an IT consultant, he has not only knowledge and some spare time, but is also very interested in setting up what he calls an “Open Source Information Center” for Addis Ababa (he is against the Term “Linux User Group”, as people would only associate some foreign operating system with the word “Linux”, while “Open Source” would turn them curious). We agree to help him in writing a project proposal for possible fundings. Furthermore we are going to raise donations of free CDs by Linux distributors as well as books of Linux tutorials for shipping down to Ethiopia in the next months. As no Linux distributions are for sale in Addis and downloads are very slow, there is currently no better way to get Linux to the Ethiopian people.

On Thursday, 8th of April, after more Linux installation woes, we meet two journalists from the local amharic newspaper “Addis Lena”, Mr Tibebu Belete and of the Addis Broadcasting Company, Mr Yared Tesfaye. They have heard about our lecture at the Goethe-Institut and ask mainly questions on defining “Open Source” and which role Linux plays in this paradigma. As we are a bit edgy by the installation problems and as the questions are not much to the point, the resulting text could be kind of strange to technically unadept people (we don't know, it's in amharic!).

In the evening we meet two attendants of our lecture, Mr Maiwald and Mr Mai of the GTZ, the German Technical Cooperation [20]. We hope to interest them in funding our project of an Ethiopian Open Source Information Center, but as it turnes out, they were working for the infrastructure department, mainly concerned about mapping Addis Ababa. They only have turned up for our lecture as at the same time the Goethe-Institut was showing the German film “Good Bye Lenin” – but at another venue. Nevertheless they took interest in the subject of our presentation and stayed to listen. So by chance we got the possibility to tell them about the opportunities of Open Source in developing countries and in the end, Mr Mai promised to discuss our project proposal with the head of the GTZ.

Our last advocacy appointment took place on Friday, April 9th. We meet two other attendants of our Goethe-Institut lecture, the owner of a private computer college called “MakeTech” and the owner of an IT consultancy. Both are convinced by our argumentation pro Linux – the IT consultant planning to provide his clients with Linux networks and support, while the owner of MakeTech College will start teaching Linux courses as soon as possible. He is very enthusiastic about this subject and tells us of his advertising plans of posting Linux penguins all over the city as well as in the newspapers. MakeTech Computer Colleg started only some months ago as a family business. The owner is using Red Hat Linux at the moment and has also some UNIX experiences. At the moment his college teaches 120 students in introductory computer courses, networking, computer graphics and (web) publishing [21].

We spent our last two days in Addis with sightseeing – visiting the great Merkato (marketplace) as well as an organic farming project and the nature reserve owned by the local Meta Beer Company.

Conclusion: How To Advocate Linux in Developing Countries

  1. Just do it! It's very rewarding.

  2. Be sure to have at least one or two local contact persons before starting your trip. Our connection to the German Cultural Institute provided a valuable home base, while Dr Bekele of the AAU gave us broad insight into the current status of local Information Technology.

  3. Look for localization projects for your chosen country. A translated desktop will put a smile on any of your audience's faces.

  4. Pack the latest distributions. Take as many copies as possible.

  5. If you want to give a presentation in your host country, try to get as much basic information as possible beforehand. Internet access will be very slow later on.

  6. Choose a comfortable hotel. Make sure you have electricity, warm water and a nice bed, so you can show up clean and well rested to your meetings.

  7. Be enthusiastic about your subject. Nothing is more persuading as someone who is in love with Open Source (and able to explain why).

Original Posting of this article 15 april 2004 at



[1] relevantive's Open Source activities: and

[2] Our argumentation is detailed in these two documents: Project Expose (; presentation “Information Technology and Development”, held at the Goethe Institut Addis Ababa on 04/06/04 (

[3] CIA World Factbook on Ethiopia:

[4] Annual average income, in: “Ethiopia: More aid, more hunger still”,

[5] Figures on Ethiopian Internet Usage, in: “For Most Africans, Internet Access Is Little More Than a Pipe Dream“,

[6] Linux Counter Ethiopia:

[7] Linux User Groups Worldwide:,,

[8] Facts on Addis Ababa:

[9] Ge'ez Frontier Foundation:

[10] Gnome amharic localization project:

[11] Apart from being active in Open Source development, Dr Bekele is also the innovative head of Ethiopia's first e-commerce website “Ethiogift” ( Ethiopians in diaspora can order gifts online to be sent to their relatives and friends at home. The bestselling article of this site is sheep, ranging from “medium” (48 US$) to “very big” (71 US $). Article on Wired Magazine:,1272,54360,00.html

[12] Institute of Ethiopian Studies (IES):

[13] IES Library:

[14] Dandii Boru University College:

[15] Open Source Systems for Libraries:

[16] Picture gallery at

[17] Our lecture slides:

[18] SuSE Samba printing problem:

[19] Africa Source: African Free and Open Source Software Developers Meeting:

[20] Gesellschaft für technische Zusammenarbeit:

[21] Contact: [email protected]