Just like the Bay Area is known for Silicon Valley, my hometown of Port Harcourt, Nigeria is known for petroleum. When I was eight years old, some of the big petroleum companies, Schlumberger and ALSCON, partnered with MIT Media Lab to bring mini, connected computers to Port Harcourt through One Laptop Per Child (OLPC). They gave away over 1,000—and I got one of them.
My laptop was running Linux (Sugar Desktop) and, because I’ve always been curious, breaking things down and fixing them to see how they work, I started experimenting, writing code, creating games. The idea behind OLPC was to empower young people by building access, and it really sparked my interest in technology.
Twelve years later, I’ve learned a lot, and am learning more every day. I’ve visited Silicon Valley many times, spoken at conferences, written thousands of lines of code, and met inspiring people. Most importantly, I’ve made it my job to empower the people around me—starting with creating one of the largest open source conferences in Africa.
I’ve made it my job to empower the people around me—starting with creating one of the largest open source conferences in Africa.
Recognizing the power of open source
The computer I received from OLPC was running on Sugar, a program developed by Sugar Labs. Sugar Labs’ founder, Walter Bender, is a Senior Research Scientist at MIT Media Lab and co-founder of OLPC. He’s been my mentor ever since I got that first computer, and his work on the software is really what connected me to open source.
I love playing video games, especially FIFA. As a 12-year-old, I would play with my friends, and noticed a bunch of them were spending their money at internet cafes playing this online football game. It seemed like it would be easy to make the game available offline as an app. So I asked Walter if I could see similar project ideas that could help me build the game.
After days of reading and digging into the Python code, I wrote my first Linux app—Football. I did some testing and pushed it to the Sugar app store. Six months later, it had thousands of downloads. It was amazing. My community was using it, and I got a lot of feedback from places like Hong Kong, and various countries across Asia, and South America.
Building that first app and seeing the effect it had—not just on friends and developers, but my community, and communities around the world—helped me realize the impact I could have. And I wanted to continue that. To be closer to the community. To do things that impact people everywhere.
So after I finished high school, I started volunteering for Sugar Labs, pushing code to GitHub, and was helping the organization with both recruiting new contributors and teaching kids how to use and learn about the desktop. Then I was promoted to a maintainer.
In 2017, I traveled to San Francisco for the first time as a mentor with Sugar Labs for the Google Summer of Code (GSoC) Mentor summit. I had the opportunity to connect with many folks at the GSoC summit, and later traveled to Boston to meet with Walter and other long term contributors of the projects.
Building that first app and seeing the effect it had—not just on friends and developers, but my community, and communities around the world—helped me realize the impact I could have.
Driving the open source movement in Africa
As a maintainer for Sugar Labs, I get to work with a lot of people across the globe. Not just on the coding side, but socially. That’s the beauty of open source. It gives me the opportunity to get to know other countries and collaborate with different people. It makes me a better human.
In 2018, GitHub’s annual Octoverse Report showcased the growth of open source in Africa, especially Nigeria. I was trying to figure out how to highlight that strength and encourage even more growth. This led me to reach out to industry leaders (including the Open Source Chief at Google) to figure out how to get more Africans working on open source, and in 2018, the Open Source Community Africa (OSCA) was born.
We actually launched by mistake because I accidentally clicked publish too soon, but our first OSCA project reached about 300 computer science students as part of the GSoC Bootcamp. With that partnership, we did our own GSoC Bootcamp, and then about six or seven attendees got accepted into the larger GSoC program. That number keeps growing every year, and we divide the outreach between the community, projects, and advocates. We have meetups across different African cities. We started in Port Harcourt, then moved to Lagos. Then we expanded to three or four African countries, most recently Zambia and Kenya.
That’s the beauty of open source. It gives me the opportunity to get to know other countries and collaborate with different people. It makes me a better human.
Raising double the money and hosting an eager community of creators
In 2019, I tweeted a question asking if folks would come to Africa for an open source festival (or conference, as others might call it). It was kind of a joke—but to my surprise, the reception was super positive. The OSCA community we’d built had the potential to host a festival.
Sometimes, I dream bigger than I can take, and I still think the idea behind the festival was crazy. At some point I realized we needed to raise double the amount we had originally thought, from $40,000 to $80,000. Others might have seen that as impossible, but our team got to work. I learned that I had a talent for convincing people to financially support my ideas, which was fun. And the interest was definitely there: We went above and beyond even our own wild expectations and raised around $88,000 in four months.
In preparation for the festival, the team and I traveled to the Free and Open Source Software Developers’ European Meeting (FOSDEM) and Sustain Summit Brussels, then tried to reverse engineer those to make ours super localized. I’d send out tweets to gauge what people wanted and how they were feeling. I sorted out who they wanted to see, what they wanted to learn about, how long it should be.
From start to finish, our team was amazing. They created a safe place to talk about and share ideas, and made the content for the festival something that would leave people inspired and motivated beyond the event. From my co-founder to my co-team members to the volunteers, it’s unfair to single anyone out. They all gave 100 percent.
The Open Source Festival 2020 was held in Lagos from February 20 to 22. We originally expected 500 people to attend but 800 showed up. Somebody drove 11 hours just to be there (and traveling by road in Nigeria is not common, or easy). It was shocking. And awesome. Just hearing everyone’s stories and all the things that people had sacrificed to come to the festival showed how important open source is in Africa.
It was shocking. And awesome. Just hearing everyone’s stories and all the things that people had sacrificed to come to the festival showed how important open source is in Africa.
I kept hearing the same thing: Africans had experience and interest but didn’t know how to get into open source. They didn’t know they could contribute to projects like Facebook’s React. They hadn’t heard about OSCA before the festival. They struggled to find channels where they could share their open source successes.
We’re on our way to changing that. The next festival might be in Kenya or South Africa, and the idea is to move it across different African countries. I want more Africans to become major contributors and maintainers of impactful open source projects because I believe they can help solve the world’s challenges. We just need to encourage sharing and create that space for Africans to spread their open source wings and fly.