Where to Place Ethiopia in Global Software Map

It is time for Ethiopia to have a concreted national software strategy or initiate a debate on it

Given the increasingly growing role of information and communications technology (ICT) in the economy, politics and society, software capacity development, which is a critical element of ICT, has rapidly risen to be a national imperative in most countries. Meanwhile, Ethiopia does not yet have a dedicated strategy for software. Even the existing ICT policy has no separate provisions for software.

There are basically two major components of software capacity: utilisation capacity and development capacity.

Software utilisation is the capacity to use procured software to its full potential and capabilities. Almost all countries, from the advanced nations to the least developed ones, promote computer literacy and support advanced software application skills development schemes.

Software utilisation capacity may appear trivial to some but it is not, particularly in developing countries, including Ethiopia. Some studies have indicated that the use of a desktop computer may be limited to a fraction of the overall capacity it offers.

In some workplaces, out of the couple of dozens of application programs, only one or two are used, and mainly the word processor. And even the use of word processor is not advanced.

For instance, out of the several hundreds of commands in MS Word, only a dozen or so are commonly used. The same is true to network utilisation.

The use of networks in many places is limited to internet access. Similar situation exists in the use of online applications – think of the use of Google Map by businesses and organisations in our country. The use of industry software products such as GIS, AutoCAD, CAM and so on also hover around the basic features.

To ensure improved software utilization, continuous and systematic effort is needed. Improving software utilisation capacity has a direct effect in the productivity or efficiency of firms, government and individuals. Another well-known business advantage of high software utilisation capacity is the potential for IT-enabled services or business process outsourcing (BPO).

What attracts the fascination and attention of academicians, industry analysts and policy makers is, however, software development. Several countries, including some in Africa, have mounted ambitious plans with huge financial outlay to clone their version of the Silicon Valley; and some have published long-term ambitious visions for software development. The results, to date, are diverse.

Some have achieved impressive success, while others have little to show. The most acclaimed success is that of India – a country which has been able to grow its software products export close to 50 billion dollars within two decades. China’s record is also impressive. Its total sales, much of it for local market, reached 280 billion dollars in 2012. On the other hand, in spite of strong government commitment, many African and Asian countries have succeeded only modestly.

Software products are basically of two types: packaged mass market software and enterprise software. The market for software products may be export or domestic.

Both the product type and market orientation are important policy issues and have tremendous influence on the rate of growth of the software industry. This is well explained by Richard Heeks (Prof.), a specialist in development informatics, in his model of strategic positioning for the software industry of developing countries.

What about Ethiopia?

To some, who are not keen followers of the ICT sector, the fact that software has been developed in Ethiopia may be a surprise. However small in terms of the number of lines of command (LOC) or product range, there have been some successful software development efforts in Ethiopia in the last couple of decades.

The most famous and old software developed by individuals are Ethiopic Font software. In the past decade, several local companies, sometimes in cooperation with foreign firms, have developed and deployed various other software to governmental and private customers.

The software development activity in universities is also growing. Software development in the universities is not restricted to computer science or related departments. Students of other streams also depend on software programming to demonstrate their research by virtual simulation for lack of access to physical facilities.

By any measure, all this is small. However, for any serious analyst, it provides a good starting point for the assessment of the quality of our talent and the organisation of our firms.

Generally speaking, countries have no choice but to go digital, be it proactively or reactively. As a result, the software capacity of every country is invariably rising. In terms of employment and total spending as a share of gross domestic product (GDP), it is becoming more visible everywhere.

From the supply side, a number of several factors are accelerating the expansion of software capacity worldwide. Among these factors are the rapid growth of mobile, the increasing provision of cloud services, advances in software development tools, and improvement of communication services are the major ones.

From the demand side, changing consumer behavior; growing automation of production and service processes; and the necessity for global competitiveness, economic growth, good governance and social equity are strong drivers. Though there is no concrete data about Ethiopia, it could be reasonably assumed that the demand for software capacity is bound to grow as more and more companies and government services turn digital.

If so how is the software capacity of the nation positioned with respect to such developments?

To date, software development efforts in Ethiopia were market-driven, both on a micro level or individual effort. The role of the government had been indirect and at best facilitative.

Is it time for macro level involvement?

The answer is conditionally affirmative. Government involvement is seen pessimistically by some industry analysts. On the contrary, an overwhelming number of researches have also theoretically as well as practically ascertained that without government support and guidance, the software capacity of developing countries could not score meaningful growth.

Thus, it is now high time to initiate the consideration for a dedicated software strategy of Ethiopia. Normally, strategic consideration of the software sector, as any other sector, requires analysis as well as synthesis. SWOT analysis technique, if need be complemented with other analytical tools such as comparative and case studies, could be effectively and sufficiently used for analysis.

Synthesis may be based on standard industry development models such as Heeks 5-Stage Model or simply result from the logical conclusion of the analysis. In a less likely choice of delaying specific policy intervention, the strategic deliberation would have been a fruitful exercise for it would galvanise the efforts of sector players and broaden the understanding of the possibilities and the potentials of the industry in Ethiopia and result in a heightened sense of purpose for the whole software community. For this and many other reasons, it is time for national deliberation on where Ethiopia’s rightful place is in software development and utilisation.

By Aynalem Aregawi
Aynalem Aregawi - aynalem08@gmail.com – a senior expert at the Ministry of Communications & Information Technology (MCIT).

Published on March 9, 2015 [ Vol 15 ,No 774]



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