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“The uptake of FOSS by the market is improving every day” An Interview with Evans Ikua

Evans Ikua has been actively promoting the use of FOSS and FOSS certification in Africa. As ict@innovation's certification manager, but also as a member of  the Linux Professional Association (LPA), an organisation promoting professionalism and acceptance of FOSS, and CEO of LANet Consulting, a company that trains entrepreneurs in the use of FOSS, Evans has actively advanced the use of FOSS and FOSS certification in Kenya for a number of years. Beacuse of his wealth of experience in promoting FOSS in Kenya we asked Evans to share some of his experiences, highlighting the challenges Kenya faces, in this interview.

ict@innovation: How did you get involved with FOSS and how did it become a focal point in your career?

I started using FOSS in 2003 when I was looking for a content management system CMS I had just started off my consulting firm and I could  not afford the commercial CMSs that were available. A friend of mine pointed me to sourceforge and I was amazed at the hundreds of free CMSs that were there and freely available. These CMSs had much better functionality than what I had seen in the commercial arena, and I could also easily modify them as the source code was open.

I also noted that I could get an application for just about anything at sourceforge. This gave me an opportunity to take an application, learn it and provide a solution to a client based on that application. Or I could study what the client needed, get a software at sourceforge and provide the solution, at a fee. From then henceforth there is no turning back on FOSS.

ict@innovation: Could you please explain your work at the Linux Professional Association LPA and your efforts to influence government policies towards the use of FOSS solutions?

Having developed great interest in FOSS I joined the Kenya Linux User Group and started sharing knowledge with other open source developers and implementers. In 2006, we decided to transform the LUG into an association so that we could have a formal platform to engage with the Government and industry. I became the first chairman.

After some time we noted that many government tenders required suppliers to supply computers to the government loaded with proprietary software. This in an environment where there existed a law (The Public Procurement and Disposal Act 2005) which clearly stated that government agents should not mention any trade names, trade marks or brands when they were issuing tender requests. A statutory authority that was mandated to enforce this law (The Public Procurement Oversight Authority - PPOA) was created under the Act.We therefore sought support from the Business Advocacy Fund (BAF) which is funded by DANIDA and engaged the government through the PPOA to ensure that government agents did not mention any brands of software  when they were issuing out tender advertisements. This was successful and we have seen a marked improvement in our members getting software tenders with the government.

We also actively engaged the government by inviting them to our events and sensitizing them about the benefits of FOSS to the economy. Such events as the software freedom day and the first Kenya Open Source Awards which was held last year were attended by senior government officers. We were also able to recognize companies working with FOSS, developers who had contributed to the FOSS ecosystem locally and Internationally, and even government agencies who were actively using FOSS in their core IT systems. This way we made the government take note that FOSS had finally matured, and that we had adequate support capacity locally.

ict@innovation: In what way do you think the employability of young IT professionals working with FOSS can be increased?

For this to happen, we will need  to inculcate a culture of professionalism in the FOSS ecosystem. This is because whereas the major proprietary software vendors have made a name in the market, and they have deep pockets to market and position themselves, the FOSS providers are hardly known. They are always small startup companies, or individual consultants who are marketing their solutions. There is therefore an urgent need to increase the visibility of FOSS practitioners and enhance their professional standing so that the IT industry can have more confidence in them. This is the reason why we formed the LPA so that we can encourage professionalism for the IT professionals working with FOSS.

ict@innovation: What is your experience working with the LPI?

At my firm, LANet Consulting, we were among the very first to offer LPI training in Kenya. We provided training to a number of IT professionals in the public and private sector. When we approached the LPI to be given the LPI Approved Training Partners Status, we were given some conditions that we could not fulfil at that time. we therefore just provided the training but we were not able to offer the exams. The exams were quite expensive based on the local economy and therefore not many people could afford them.

ict@innovation: As the CEO of LANet Consulting you offer FOSS solutions and training to customers. How would you describe the business climate, and how do you stand next to competitors offering proprietary solutions?

The business climate right now is getting better and better for us. The uptake of FOSS by the market is improving every day. The Government has implemented quite a number of large projects based on FOSS and this has given us a base to position ourselves and also made the marketing of FOSS much easier. However, there is still a major challenge competing against the big giants who offer proprietary solutions. This is because they have already entrenched themselves in the market and they are able to spend large sums of money in their marketing and PR campaigns. Many of the large companies have entrenched themselves in the system and its very hard to penetrate where they have been doing business.

On a more positive note, the industry is recognizing that open source solutions are just as good as proprietary solutions, and sometimes better. This has seen more and more organizations choosing to implement open source solutions and this is a growing opportunity not just for us but for everyone offering FOSS solutions in Kenya. Leading FOSS companies in Kenya like ourselves, OpenWorld, DewCIS, Alliance Technologies and JS Engine among others, are now marketing themselves very aggressively and taking the war to the big proprietary vendors with positive results.

ict@innovation:  How far would you say programmes such as ict@innovation contribute to a more extensive use of FOSS in the long run?

One of the ways that ict@innovation will contribute to the growth of FOSS in Kenya and indeed the African continent is by expanding the support base for FOSS. In particular the FOSS Certification pillar which I manage,  will ensure that there is a large number of technicians and engineers who can install and manage the Linux Operating system, on which the FOSS platform runs. This is still a major challenge. Many organizations would like to implement FOSS but there is a challenge for support capacity. It will also play a major role in the development of professional capacities as the market will see more and more engineers being certified in LPI and other FOSS certifications.

The FOSS business models pillar is already helping many FOSS businesses manage and run their businesses better than they used. It has also shown others how to make use of the opportunities presented by FOSS and create businesses out of them.
All these will increase the uptake of FOSS in Africa as these businesses will be there to push the FOSS agenda, and also to provide support to the organizations that choose to implement FOSS.

About Linux Professional Association of Kenya
The Linux Professional Association of Kenya (LPA) is a central organisation for the dissemination of FLOSS knowledge and information in Kenya, and promotes a cross-sector use of FLOSS software actively. LPA has a network of corporate members, which assist the organisation with their expertise and knowledge. Through the promotion of widespread adoption of FLOSS in Kenya, LPA seeks to contribute to “National economic development and poverty reduction”, as well as “to the development of policies regarding the information and communication technology industry in Kenya.” 

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