Africa will have to break its dependency on patented software such as Microsoft if it wants to speed its development process. This was a position advocated at a conference examining the link between ICT, good governance and economic development, held at the CSIR in Pretoria a few days ago.

Natalie Sunker of the Institute for Global Dialogue argued for the greater use of open source software in Africa. She asserted that the WTO's trade agreement on intellectual property rights (TRIPS) was not benefiting Africa and that the high cost of intellectual property and the absence of adequate infrastructure were hampering Africa's development. "Knowledge is an expensive commodity. Africans cannot afford to pay the price," she said.

Sunker noted that different regions in the continent were at different stages of ICT implementation, suggesting that "Africa should develop a regional technological policy to suit Africa" and that regional organisations such as SADC, must develop a coherent position on a range of issues including the use of open source software alternatives. She said open source software cuts costs because it is downloaded free of cost and aids job creation, as a person would no longer have to be Microsoft literate.

Zwude Mbulawa, the executive director of Innovation Ideas and Consulting Services, speculated whether African countries have come to a point where they could actually develop their own software. He said it was imperative that African governments make ICT research and development a top priority and commit a fixed percentage of the budget to ICT research.

Concluding, Sunker noted that African countries should try to amend the TRIPS agreement on software patents. It was noted, however, by some attending the conference that Africa does not have leverage to push for amendments to the WTO agenda. Sunker acknowledged this obstacle, reiterating the importance of reducing the continent's dependence on patented software. In allowing Bill Gates to donate Microsoft software to African schools, governments are only deepening the continent's dependency, she said. Commenting on Gates' so-called benevolence, she said: "We should be wary of it.",2172,100071,00.html