Linux4afrika: An Interview with the Founder

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by | September 2007 | Linux Servers Networking & Telephony Open Source

It all began during a routine FreiOSS training program conducted by Hans-Peter Merkel, and has now grown to become one of the very popular initiatives to foster Open Source at an international level, specifically for the third world.

 

"Linux4afrika has the objective of bridging the digital divide between developed and disadvantaged countries, especially in Africa, by supporting  access to information technology. This is done through the collection of used computers in Germany, the terminal server project and Ubuntu software which is open source, and by providing support to the involved schools and institutions."

In this interview with the founder Hans-Peter Merkel, Packt's Kushal Sharma explores the idea, support, and the future of this movement.

Kushal Sharma: Who are the chief promoters of this movement?

Hans-Peter Merkel: FreiOSS (established in 2004) with currently about 300 members started the Linux4afrika project in 2006. The input was provided by some African trainees doing their internship at St. Ursula High school in Freiburg where we currently have 2 Terminal servers running. The asked FreiOSS to run similar projects in Africa.

KS: What initiated this vision to bridge the IT gap between the developed and the under developed nations?

During 2002 to 2005 we conducted IT trainings on Open Source products during 3 InWEnt trainings “Information Technology in African business” (see http://www.it-ab.org) with 60 African trainees (20 each year). This made FreiOSS to move OSS out of the local area and include other countries, especially those countries we had participants from.

KS: Can you briefly recount the history of this movement, from the time it started to its popularity today?

HPM: As mentioned before, the Linux4afrika project has its roots with FreiOSS and St. Ursula High school. There itself the idea was born. I conduct Open Source trainings and security trainings in several African countries (see http://www.hpmerkel.com/events). During a training in Dar es Salaam I demonstrated the Terminal Server solution to participants in a security training. One of the participants informed a Minister of Tanzanian Parliament who immediately came to get more information on this idea. He asked whether Linux4afrika could collect about 100 Computers and ship them to Tanzania. Tanzania would cover the shipping costs. After retuning to Germany I informed FreiOSS regarding this, and the collection activity started. We found out more information about the container costs and found that a container would fit about 200 computers for the same price. Therefore we decided to change the number from 100 to 200. One Terminalserver (AMD 64 Dual Core with 2 GB Memory) can run about 20 Thin Clients. This would serve about 10 schools in Tanzania.

The Ubuntu Community Germany heard about our project and invited us to Linuxtag in Berlin (2007). This was a breakthrough for us; many organizations donated hardware. 3SAT TV also added greatly to our popularity by sending a 5 minute broadcast about our project (see http://www.linux4afrika.de). In June we met Markus Feilner from German Linux Magazin who contacted us and also published serveral online reports.

In September Linux4afrika was invited to the German Parliament to join a meeting about education strategies for the under developed countries.

In October Linux4afrika will start collection for a second container which will be shipped end of the year.

In early 2008 about 5 members of FreiOSS will fly to Dar es Salaam on their own costs to conduct a one week training where teachers will be trained. This will be an addon to the service from Agumba Computers Ltd. (see http://www.agumba.biz). Agumba offers support in Tanzania to keep the network running. During the InWEnt trainings from 2002-2005, three employees from Agumba were in that training. Currently, 2 other people from Agumba are here for a three month internship to become familiar with our solution and make the project sustainable.

KS: Who are the major contributors?

HPM: Currently FreiOSS in Germany and Agumba Computers in Tanzania are the major contributors.

KS: Do you get any internal support in Tanzania and Mozambique? Do their Governments support open source?

HPM: Yes, we do. In Tanzania, it's Augumba Computers and in Mozambique we have some support from CENFOSS. All trainings conducted by me on Security and Forensics had a 70 percent part on Open Source in Tanzania. Currently, the Governmental agencies are implementing those technologies mainly on servers.

KS: Do you have any individuals working full-time for this project? If so, how do the full-time individuals support themselves financially?

HPM: All supporters are helping us without any financial support. They all come after work to our meetings which take place about once a month. After some starting problems the group is now able to configure and test about 50 Thin clients per evening meetings.

KS: Tell us something more about the training program: what topics do you cover, how many participants do you have so far, etc.?

HPM: Tanzania shows a big interest in Security trainings. Agumba computers offers those trainings for about 4-6 weeks a year. Participants come from Tanzania Revenue Authority, Police, Presidents office, banks, water/electricity companies and others. Currently Tanzania Revenue Authority has sent 5 participants to conduct a 3 month Forensic training in Germany.

In Tanzania about 120 participants joined the trainings so far. Sessions for next year will start in January 2007.

KS: Packt supported the project by sending some copies of our OpenVPN book. How will these be used and what do you hope to gain from them?

HPM: Markus Feilner (the author of the OpenVPN book) is currently in Tanzania. He will conduct a one and a half day training on OpenVPN in Dar es Salaam. The participants in Germany who received the books will receive practical training on IPCop and OpenVPN for Microsoft and Linux clients. This will help them establish secure Wireless in their country.

KS: What does the future hold for Linux4afrika?

Our current plans include the second container, the visit to Dar early 2008, and Linuxtag 2008. Further actions will be discussed therafter.

We already have a few requests to expand the Terminalserver Solution to other under developed countries. Also, currently we have a request to support Martinique after the hurricane has destroyed huge parts of the island.

KS:Thanks very much Hans-Peter for taking out time for us, and all the very best for your plans.

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