With a piracy rate of 80 percent, can the tech world convince Africa to buy legitimate software?

With a piracy rate of 80 percent, can the tech world convince Africa to buy legitimate software?

Summary: The cost of buying non-pirate software can be prohibitive for many Africans. Can the likes of Microsoft persuade consumers that a legal copy is worth paying all those extra dollars for?


For African consumers hurtling head-long into the digital age, software licenses — which can cost hundreds of dollars — can often seem like an unreasonable expense. A licensed copy of Microsoft Office can cost nearly as much (if not more) than a low-end laptop, for example.

Billa Coetsee, who lives in Pretoria, knows all too well how easy it is to come by cheaper alternatives.

"Everybody knows somebody that can get a hold of any software," he says. "In most cases no fees are involved as it usually involves a form of bartering, where software you want is exchanged for software you already have. Established IT shops won't typically sell pirated software off the shelf, but you'll still be able to obtain pirated software from them via interaction with their employees."

Coetsee is managing director of Noctranet, a software company specialising in cloud. He says it isn't uncommon for him to find people, even clients, pirating his own software.

"A couple of years ago for every two legally licensed organisations there was one using our software without license," he says. "We are definitely losing money as a result."

Yet Coetsee's 33 percent piracy rate is comparatively low. While the global rate of software piracy stands at around 42 percent, in Africa it is closer to 80 percent, according to the Business Software Alliance (BSA). The highest rate of piracy is in Zimbabwe, where 92 percent of software is being used illegally.

"You could call it a developing world phenomenon," says the BSA's legal affairs manager Warren Weertman, who points out that a similar problem exists in Asia. Nor, he says, is it hard to understand why it happens.

"What you see is a proliferation of counterfeit or unlicensed copies of software being made available, often at a significantly reduced price," Weertman says. "So people will often feel, 'why buy a copy of Microsoft Office for what could be a couple of hundred dollars when you can pick up a bootleg copy for a couple of dollars?'."

The anti-piracy movement

In recent years those in the industry, including the BSA and Microsoft, have been campaigning hard to convince both consumers and governments that software piracy doesn't just hurt tech multinationals. It's an uphill battle; in Africa, as Weertman points out, intellectual property (IP) rights are rarely enforced even when they are enshrined in law.

But from an economic perspective, he argues, it behooves African governments to work harder on the issue, Weertman believes. Along with generating tax revenues, buying licensed software also creates jobs, says Weertman. "When people are making use of licensed software, chances are that there will actually be in increase in jobs to support that legitimate IT infrastructure in markets," he says. "It's not just about lost tax. It actually goes to the heart of the issue of employment."

Pirated software can also cost a customer or business more when it stops working or works slowly, Weertman says, and comes with security risks."We find that in most copies of counterfeit software a lot of the security features have been disabled."

One of the most crucial steps towards enforcing IP rights is for African governments to update their legal frameworks, Weertman says, which in some cases can be decades old. South Africa's copyright act, he says, dates back to the 1970s, and although it has been modified several times since then, "it's still not up to date with the digital economy that exists in the world today".

Feeling the pinch, software giant Microsoft has mounted a campaign to fight piracy across the continent. Monique Ferreira, Microsoft's anti-piracy manager for South Africa, says the company focuses on educating the public about the security risks of piracy and the consequences of being caught — many consumers, she says, aren't even aware they're breaking the law. But they also work closely with the police and governments across the continent, trying to boost enforcement.

A focus on law enforcement has yielded results in the past. Piracy rates in Russia fell from 73 percent in 2007 to 63 percent in 2011, says Weertman, largely due to rigorous prosecution of IP offenders by local police.

But, he admits, many African consumers are simply unable to afford software licenses. "It can be a tricky debate, because ultimately it is important that people do get access to software," he says.

Recognising that with high prices come greater incentives to pirate, Microsoft has been finding ways for cash-strapped consumers to access legal versions of its products. These include offering pared-down versions of its Office suite at a reduced price, and a program allowing schools and universities licensing Office for their staff to install it free on students' computers.

But, Weertman says, Africa's technological future ultimately depends on its citizens' willingness to pay for products like software. The continent has the creative potential to produce IT innovations the world has never seen, he says, but "it's going to require Africans investing in IT companies for themselves. And if you're not going to have that legal framework in place to enforce your rights, what's the point?"

Read more on Africa

Topics: Enterprise Software, Piracy

Hilary Heuler

About Hilary Heuler

Hilary is an itinerant print and radio journalist who originally hails from Southern California. In recent years her travels have taken her to Europe, Asia and Africa, where she has reported on everything from techie innovations to antique riverboats. She is currently based in Kampala, Uganda, where she's busy swatting mosquitoes and keeping an eye on the ways technology can impact society.

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  • Well, Can Africa convince the world,

    a) after strip mining their continent for gems and gold
    b) razing down their forests to export processed food
    c) destroying their wildlife for profit/sport
    d) completely ignoring the genocide that has been on going, while glamorizing one that allegedly happened in the distant past but allegedly again, only to jews(sic)

    to give a damn about Africa ?

    Or, maybe, they should just bend over backwards to satisfy the fat cats who aren't satisfied with just 100s of billions of dollars each stashed away in foreign accounts.

    No, I am not from Africa, never was, wasn't born there or have anything do with them at all.
  • What if software made for Africans were made by Africans?

    I'm rather certain that, with Africa rising as a continent Nigeria rising as a country, Africans will pay for legitimate software when they are able, but it's likely that this software will be developed locally by then.
    • Ubuntu?


      Rabid Howler Monkey
  • More like

    With a piracy rate of ~80%, can we convince Microsoft that they're charging too much for their software?
    Jacob VanWagoner
    • Let the market decide

      Exactly! A big aspect of the piracy problem is the market rejecting the cost. Sure, they are free to charge what they want, but the consequences are also their problem.

      The music industry learned the lesson through iTunes and Apple and are now making money hand over fist.

      The software industry actually understood it at one time. Borland took the number one spot from Lotus 1-2-3 primarily for offering a top-notch product at a price people were willing to pay.
    • More Like

      I have always had trouble with the logic of those claiming financial pain do to software piracy.
      For example they estimate 1,000 pirated copies of something what it is doesn't matter. To expand on that each copy or license is $100 just to keep round numbers. They then claim they have automatically lost $100,000 out of their pocket. What I have trouble getting my head around is where did that $100,000 come from. In this example Africians can't afford the $100 a copy. It if weren't for piracy they wouldn't have it at all. Can't afford, so in this case they never would have actually bought it. ie no sale. So how can the software supplier claim a loss of a sale that never would have happened. The same as GM whine they are losing millions because the homeless aren't buying new Cadillacs. They simply can't afford them so don't buy them. It's only a loss on paper, but not a true loss
      • I've always thought the same.

        If I were to keep up with commercial graphic software, I would have had to shut down my freelance business years ago. Lukily Open Source has come to the scene with a really good model I've been using more and more of: Software is free, if you want support, or need enterprise support, you pay.
        Apple, Samsung, Comcast, Time Warner do this all the time... no-profit on any hardware because it's priced as low as possible (or free, in the case of set top boxes) but you DO pay for the services.
        It's true, if software were un-copyable, it would simply be reverse engineered (as are so many products) but sold at a price that major companies would NEVER be able to sell at - in this case you're paying for QUALITY, CONSISTENCY, and SUPPORT.
        It is not so much a loss as a trade off.
        Also, with software, what really surprises me is that they don't consider all this piracy good publicity in that people really DO want their product? It makes that product a standard in places it would not even be able to penetrate otherwise.
        I'm all for creators of products getting their money's worth, but there's a point where companies just have to 'let it go', because they've sold as much as they are going to at the price point they deem adequate to profit.
  • Activation?

    I do not use MS products, so perhaps this is a naive question, but isn't this the type of thing that's supposed to be solved by Activation or Genuine Windows Advantage (whatever that is)

    How are they able to get around the activation scheme that MS employs nowadays?
  • People pirate...

    ...things that only cost a few dollars. There's no price point I've ever seen that's low enough that all people would rather buy it instead.

    Often there's some vague anti-corporate thought behind the refusal to pay, but the fact remains that the company you hate is making things you want.
    luke mayson
  • 80%! Maybe an incorrect estimation

    The BSA 80% estimation is, as always, as bad as the metodology used. You can not take the number of windows PC and software sold an calculate a number of illegal software. For many, many years I had Windows XP in my PC and no other purchased software (because with the years I replace IE with Firefox, MSOffice with OpenOffice, Outlook with Thunderbird, Norton Antivirus with AVG, etc.), but by the BSA metodology I am part of the 60% illegal software of LatinAmerica. If the metodollogy is bad you can not be sure if it is 10% or 95%.
  • Suggest it is more about culture than economics....

    As seems to be the case in MANY "3rd world" countries (and some "not so 3rd world")... As long as a cultural value exists that demonstrates (regardless of what may be "taught") it is fine to take from those "who have more than you do", the issue will never cease. In fact, creative individuals will continue to find alternate ways to take what does not belong to them if any current loopholes ever get plugged. Consider the original "Nigerian mail/phone/email scam", for example, and that today a lot more of that kind of activity originates from Asian locales than African ones....
    • It might be more cultural...

      It might be, but economics is the main reason in countries where the price of software can be as much as a month salary or more. Would you pay for it if you could get it for free and in their position?
      No, you wont either. So don't blame culture so much for what it is an real economic difference. Bring prices to their income level, you get rid of piracy. Even if in some countries you might have to sell it for just cents on the dollar.
      Look at the example I use earlier of American soldiers. Is that culturally too ? Are they not americans used to paying for software and movies back home? It is different when the shoe in on the other foot, isn't it?
  • China probably has a piracy rate as high as Africa

    And China today has a much higher standard of living than the african continent, and they continue to use pirated software. Latin America and the rest of Asia, except Japan, are also in the same boat.
    It is mostly cultural. People that feel that its alright to take something that you don't actually see, like code, and steal it. Where they would never do the same with a physical item, in their minds.
    Piracy also has a lot to do with PRICE and OPPORTUNITY. Of course that western software is priced too high for developing and under developed countries. But you also have opportunity. That which makes it easy to obtain.

    Example. US soldiers, with lots of disposable income while deployed, buy pirated movies right outside the PX, and in font of the eyes of all commanders. Many of whom buy pirate copies themselves. Here we have easy opportunity. No, you will never change human behavior when there are no penalties and the opportunity exists. Even in our country, I bet that if people thought they would not get caught, they would use pirate copies also.
  • Give it up....

    What do they need it for anyways, sending out email scams.

    But really, Microsoft might change there mind when they start wanting tech support.
  • Those corporate folks are delusional

    "Along with generating tax revenues, buying licensed software also creates jobs, says Weertman. "When people are making use of licensed software, chances are that there will actually be in increase in jobs to support that legitimate IT infrastructure in markets," he says. "It's not just about lost tax. It actually goes to the heart of the issue of employment."

    Utter bulllshit. How the hell are the governments supposed to generate tax and business make employments when no one would buy their products at those ridiculous prices? As an African, I can tell you that the regular folks here will laugh at this assertion. Forget it. There is a very low buying price people are willing to and can afford to buy, which these companies will never settle for. A software costs more than 10 dollars? Forget it. The people won't even bother about the legality. Yes, $10 can really come down to a buyer's purchasing power, or at least not worth the purchase. Say you enforce the law, people will in no time start turning to alternatives, which open source will very likely come to the rescue. In fact, the major reason open source isn't adopted by a majority is because of piracy.

    And oh yeah, double on GrabBoyd's comment.