Introducing FOSS in Developing Countries: The Case of “Miftaah” in the Arab Region

By Silvia Aimasso and Richard Boateng, PearlRichards Foundation, Ghana

In this concluding session, we use a real-world case study to explore how we can select FOSS applications and localize them for developing countries.



This real-world experience describes a FOSS localisation project led by the UNESCO office in Rabat, Morocco, from June 2006 to June 2008. The development goals of the project were to contribute to the awareness and dissemination of FOSS and to build local capacity for FOSS development in the Maghreb region (Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya). In March 2007, ICTDAR/UNDP, the regional UNDP office based in Cairo, dedicated to ICTs for development in the Arab states, joined the project and, consequently, its target was extended to the entire Arab region (North Africa, Middle-East and South Eastern Asia).

The project, which is ongoing, consists of the creation and dissemination of a FOSS tool called “Miftaah”, which in Classic Arabic means “key”. “Miftaah” is a FOSS package for a USB key, containing not just high quality FOSS applications, but also their user manuals and a customised and user-friendly interface to assemble and ensure accessibility to both FOSS applications and personal files stored on the key. Miftaah content is available in three languages (Arabic, French and English) and it is adapted to the local culture and tailored to the needs of youth living in the Arab Region. Miftaah was localised, developed and translated through a collaborative effort of three university teams based in Algeria, Morocco and Palestine, under the supervision and coordination of the UNESCO office in Rabat, in partnership with ICTDAR/UNDP.

Problem Definition Phase

UNESCO recognises the social value of FOSS for disseminating, in the domain of software, human knowledge in a way that non-free software cannot do. For this reason, it hosts, in collaboration with the Free Software Foundation, a portal ( that is an access point to pertinent resources and FOSS applications. This portal has promoted different projects and activities with the aim of raising awareness about FOSS and its benefits. Yet, UNESCO’s role is limited to providing DCs the necessary means and understanding that allows them to make an independent and profitable choice in the domain of software. Clear guidelines about FOSS projects and activities were included in the Programme and Budget of the Organisation for 2006/2007 approved by the General Conference. However the driving force behind the project “Miftaah” was the Director of the UNESCO office in Rabat, who proposed and led off an initiative for promoting FOSS in the Maghreb region.

Growing requests by local FOSS advocates disappointed by the absence of FOSS-based projects in the national IT strategies due to national partnerships with IT multinationals were other driving factors for the project:

“Microsoft is in every ICTs projects. There’s no alternative, and nobody talks about FOSS, nobody knows about it, we risk missing the opportunity to use FOSS for our development” (Personal interview).

Consequently, the Information and Communication Unit (ICU) of the office conducted a deep investigation on the status of local adoption of FOSS, presence and activities of local FOSS communities and FOSS localisation projects. Maghreb FOSS advocates and developers from academia, civil society and private sector were contacted and interviewed and meetings organised. The availability of up-dated data and information about the development context, access to ICTs, infrastructure and ICT needs of the Maghreb region, provided by UN, international or national reports and documents, helped define the local and specific issues to address. UNESCO’s mission and priorities were taken into account when considering the choice of the development area and target population.

The idea of Miftaah was inspired by a FOSS tool developed by a Moroccan Open Source company. Similar software packages for USB keys already existed in both FOSS and proprietary software versions. The challenge of the project was to assemble and adapt FOSS applications into a new package that could meet the interests and needs of the target of the project: Arab region youth with low IT skills. The choice of the name “Miftaah” for the final FOSS tool was chosen not just because this word means “key” in Classic Arabic, in reference to the USB key, but also because this word has the same root of the word FOSS in Arabic. The feasibility assessment analysed the need for and impact of the package and confirmed its viability. The project was approved and received extra-budgetary funding from the UNESCO headquarters in Paris.

Analysis, Design and Development Phases

Partnerships were established with one university in Morocco and a research centre in Algeria, selected according to their involvement with FOSS and their availability to participate in the project. The choice to involve academic institutions aimed to increase local capacity and encourage greater collaboration among local institutions. Moreover because local labour costs are generally lower than in developed countries, involving developers from the Region instead of recruiting foreign experts meant also meeting the limited budget of the project. Subsequently, a project team was assembled and included the personnel of the ICU and two teams of developers, one based in Morocco and the other in Algeria, composed of FOSS enthusiasts with some previous experience in FOSS development and/or participation in the activities of the local FOSS associations.

“Students from our university have organised since 2000 an annual event to raise awareness about FOSS. We were the first to introduce FOSS in Morocco and we are happy now to contribute to localise FOSS.” (A member of the Moroccan team)

“A whole section of the web site of our research centre is dedicated to FOSS. […] But we need to pass from words to acts: now we have the opportunity to develop something useful and concrete for the youth of our country.” (A member of the Algerian team)

The members of the Moroccan team, a group of students of the Mohammedia Engineering School of Rabat, were the first to join the project. Their main tasks were to conduct an analysis of the existing USB tools and of the applications selected by the feasibility study and to propose a local FOSS package. The Algerian developers, junior researchers at the national research centre CERIST of Algiers, designed, developed and translated the interfaces of Miftaah. “Framakey”, a French FOSS software package for a USB key, was selected as the basis to develop the localised tool Miftaah for its reliability, usability and openness of the code. In April 2007, UNDP/ICTDAR joined the project bringing a new partner: the Palestinian university of Birzeit. This last one accepted to draft the user manuals of Miftaah and its applications.

The phases of analysis, design and development of the software package were characterised by collaboration and sharing as stated in the project paper: “the whole development [of Miftaah] will be based on the FOSS development model”. Both technical and graphic features of Miftaah were discussed by the different team members. A mailing list, moderated by the ICU, served as communication and collaboration platform. Because not everybody in the project was Arabic-speaking and Arabic encoding is problematic, English and French were used as the main language of communication: every message was translated into English or French by the list moderator to ensure a common understanding and effective communication.

The different interfaces and functionalities of Miftaah were presented to different groups of end-users. During the development phase, the ICU and UNDP/ICTDAR organised and/or participated in different meetings and events in which Miftaah was presented to local young audiences of potential users. Local youth organisations and NGOs were consulted during the selection and validation of the interfaces and applications contained in Miftaah. The feed-back from potential end-users helped the project team to better identify and address the preferences and interests of the local young population. The Algerian team translated the manuals into French while a professional translation company dealt with the Arabic translation. Table 1 describes the different actors of the project, their motivations and role.

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