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Open Source / Tech Culture

Open Source Africa: How OSCA Empowers Developers

While 1.216 billion people live on the continent, Africa is often overlooked when it comes to open source development. Open Source Community Africa aims to change that.
Mar 12th, 2023 6:00am by
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Nigerian developer Samson Goddy is a community-oriented advocate for open source, who “believes in changing the world in his way,” according to a biography on his personal site. He’s led and consulted with African governments on technology projects — and also maintains the Sugar Desktop interface developed as part of the One Laptop per Child project.

Goddy himself experienced the power of One Laptop Per Child program in grade school —  and it inspired his lifelong passion for open source software. So in 2018, Goddy co-founded Open Source Community Africa, which he describes on his webpage as a project to “reflect my love for open source while building large projects that help the budding open source community in Africa.”

Through chapter meetups and an annual festival, the group has been encouraging open source software contributions from Africa for five years. So last month at London’s “State of Open Con 23” conference, Goddy shared stories from his own journey — and from the larger Open Source movement throughout Africa.

Making in Africa

While 1.216 billion people live on the continent — more than 15% of the world’s population — Africa is often overlooked, Goddy told his audience. From Google Developer’s Group Lagos to other communities tied to Microsoft, GitHub, and Meta, “There’s a really huge community of developers that have been moving around for ages in the continent of Africa.”

He uses their presence to underscore the mission of Open Source Community Africa. “We are not coming to create something new, but we are coming to form a voice….”

Goddy referred his audience to a GitHub collection of projects called Made in Africa, which contains a sublist of over 200 projects just from Nigeria that Goddy describes as “not just for social good, but also projects that companies rely on — which is pretty cool.”

With a population of 218 million, Nigeria is the world’s seventh most populous country. (Ethiopia, Egypt, and the Democratic Republic of Congo come in at #13, #14, and #15 — each with populations over 99 million.) Yet Goddy remembered attending the Google Summer of Code Mentor Summit in 2017 — and noticing that the number of people from Africa “was a little bit on the lower side.”

Goddy spoke to African project maintainers — and quickly learned that their challenges included not just funding but also the difficulties of traveling, “down to even getting visas, which is one of the most common conversations when it comes to traveling.”

Goddy began his talk by saying with a laugh that “I’m probably the most tired person here — because it took me about four hours to clear immigration!”

So in 2018, Goddy secured government funding for the first university-based event of Open Source Community Africa (OSCA) on his own continent. The idea was to create a user group specifically dedicated to African developers and lovers of open source.

“What I want to say is we didn’t eventually create the next big developers’ community. What we did instead was to identify what are those communities doing. And to be honest, there’s a lot of them!”

GitHub, Microsoft, and Google all have dedicated programs in local universities, “So there are a lot of initiatives that are already in universities, and we work with universities a lot,” Goddy said.

From Google Developer’s Group Lagos to the communities tied to Microsoft, GitHub, and Meta, “There’s a really huge community of developers that have been moving around for ages in the continent of Africa.” Goddy brought up a map showing 54 chapters of OSCA in various locations around Africa.

“You see a lot of West Africa,” Goddy said, because living in Nigeria “it’s just so easy for me to travel and for all my friends to travel there. But the goal here is to expand, especially in the northern part of the continent.”

Later Goddy quipped that “I’m sure there’s probably six versions of OSCA that I don’t know of, somewhere, especially in Northern Africa.

The continent brings its own unique challenges. Africa has a lot of different languages, cultures, and ways of thinking — and it’s expensive to travel across the continent. “Sometimes even getting visas can be a bit funny — just to travel around within member states.” And Africa also has a lot of different currencies, making it difficult to move money from one country to another. “It’s one reason why the continent has a lot of fintech companies,” Goddy says as an aside.

So how could Goddy make it easy for companies and individuals to financially support Open Source Community Africa — even across this tapestry of different countries? The situation improved after a 2018 conference, where Goddy met a contributor to Open Source Collective, which provided the infrastructure making donations much easier to collect. And another shortcut was to work with existing organizations. By 2020 OSCA was working with She Code Africa on an open source mentorship program that included 100 women. OSCA teamed with Facebook’s Developer Circle program on an Open Source Immersion initiative.

“We’re not actually focusing on numbers or expansion,” Goddy told his audience. “Rather we’re focusing on impact.” Its community activities start with local chapters, “where we empower people within your cities to build conversations, projects, and also to host events or smaller Meetups.”

The group’s flagship community event is an annual festival. “The goal there was to use the festival as a big event where people come and we share plans for what we intend to do for each year” — a chance to more intentional about emerging trends and to publicize upcoming events.

The first one — held in Lagos, Nigeria in 2020 — drew over 1,000 people from five countries, including the leads from 15 different local chapters. About 10% of the attendees came to Africa from another continent. But the festival has another important goal: not just to network, but to build careers.

Many companies in Africa are still requiring 10 years of experience for developer positions — so attracting off-continent companies can help launch careers. “We use the festival as a strategy to attract companies to come sponsor — and then of course enable them to talk to talent.”

It’s having a real impact on the lives of its members. In 2021 OSCA did a month-long collaboration with Meta — the Open Source Challenge — with the specific goal of getting more contributions from Africa. “At the end of the day, there were a bunch of people there were approached by recruiters to come work at Facebook.”

The festival skipped its 2021 edition — but last year it returned in a hybrid format, and by 2022 you could see all the sights and sounds of a thriving community. The festival now attracted over 1,400 members from nine different countries — including the leads from 54 local chapters. There were 92 different speakers and 96 sessions, covering everything from blockchain technologies to computer vision, from serverless containers to version control.

There was even a session on contributing to the Linux kernel.

Screenshot from the OSCAfrica 2022 conference speakers page

Screenshot from the OSCAfrica 2022 conference speakers page.

But best of all, the group was able to collaborate with some companies to sponsor travel expenses. OSCA also held an invite-only Sustain Africa event to focus on supporting maintainers of Open Source projects, featuring interactive case studies.

They’re now hoping to hold even more hackathons in 2023. “I think just in the next two to three weeks something’s going to happen in Kenya, where we’re going to be hosting up to 100 people.” But beyond that, in the last three years, they’ve worked with organizations to create special bounty programs and paid projects — and they’re already talking to some about setting up more.

And they’re hoping to make the biggest bounty program happen in real-time at OSCA’s next festival in Lagos, where they’re expecting 3,000 people from June 22-24. “We’re hoping to expand that in other African countries once we sort out some things.”

And with that expansion, Goddy hopes, open source developers across the continent will speak with a louder and more unified voice.

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