Posted by: Rebecca Alban, OpenLMIS Community Manager
The sustainability of public goods has long been an issue — it shows up everywhere from reversing the impacts of climate change, to agricultural subsidies and even the U.S. postal service. In the global development space, there are dozens of examples of technologies that were created – and continue to be sustained – through donor and government funds to serve as a public good.
Yet once a technology is proven to address a targeted health system challenge, organizations can be victims of their own success. More often than not, there isn’t a mechanism to financially sustain an open source product at scale over the long term.
Diversification of funding streams is especially fundamental for open source projects, including OpenLMIS, a logistics system used to track health products across Africa. Open source software incurs hidden costs of configuration, support, and software maintenance to be effectively integrated into any given health system. The challenge is that ongoing donor funding is not available indefinitely to cover these costs. To quote this Digital Square blog;
The misconception of open source as “free” may be better understood through the Romance languages. Open source is libre, not gratis: free as in speech, not as in lunch.
The OpenLMIS community is directly confronting this challenge by seeking a private sector partner that identifies business value in maintaining OpenLMIS as a public good. Our plan for 2020-21 is to engage with and evaluate potential partners to gradually transition the core software management and operational functions. Our objective is to achieve a more diverse funding model and create a sustainable way to strengthen public health supply chains at scale.
OpenLMIS is embracing the need for change and using it as an opportunity to re-think our approach to scale and sustain the software. We are proactively asking hard but essential questions to help us shape our new future:
- What specific opportunities exist to integrate OpenLMIS with new technology to strengthen its impact on public health systems?
- What private sector channels can we leverage to spread OpenLMIS around the globe and to provide country-level tech support?
- What other use cases can OpenLMIS be applied to which could generate revenue?
As the leading LMIS tool on the African continent, we see exciting opportunities connecting OpenLMIS to existing country open source ecosystems, leveraging the value of OpenLMIS data, and exploring ways that OpenLMIS functionality could serve private health markets. OpenLMIS lends itself to being integrated into existing commercial product offerings (ERPs for example), or to be utilized as a sales channel for related products. For any company aiming to contribute to global health system strengthening or digital global goods, this is an exciting opportunity to leverage a globally recognized technology.
The decision to transition from our current donor-funded business model to a new partnership model was not taken lightly or unilaterally. Community partners were at the heart of this decision; and we embarked on this journey together as a united community of partner organizations. After extensively researching the financial and product opportunities for OpenLMIS to be sustained, the OpenLMIS Community concluded that partnering with the private sector is the best way for OpenLMIS to continue to serve its core mission of strengthening health supply chains in LMICs, and ultimately saving lives. OpenLMIS partner John Snow Inc. summarizes their enthusiasm for this partnership:
“As a long-time partner, contributor, and advocate of OpenLMIS, we at JSI are very excited about the prospect of collaboration with a new partner who can take OpenLMIS into the future so it can continue to fulfill its mission of strengthening national health supply chains.”
Ashraf Islam, Software Development Team Lead, John Snow Inc.
Our partners in the OpenLMIS community have a history of innovative cross-sectoral collaboration to achieve impact at scale. PATH has engaged in numerous successful public-private partnerships to grow and scale health products. One example is their collaboration with Temptime and the WHO on a technology that was originally designed for the food industry, and transformed it into what are now known as vaccine vial monitors (VVM) routinely used to determine whether vaccines are damaged. CHAI worked with the government and private sugar industry in Guatemala to reach high-risk migrant workers with malaria diagnosis and treatment.
Beyond the additional funding that is possible with this model, we see other benefits:
- Extend demand and reach of the software to new geographies.
- Leverage new and different types of technical experience that will benefit the core open source platform.
- Explore new technological innovations to integrate new functions or services to the software.
- Share lessons and serve as a “proof of concept” for other digital public goods that are confronting the same situation.
Currently OpenLMIS is used to streamline health logistics processes in over 11,000 facilities in Africa so health products are available to patients when and where they need them. This transition will help OpenLMIS support countries that rely on the system, and serve new geographies and address more health challenges.
OpenLMIS was founded on the principle of cross-sectoral collaboration for a scalable and sustainable technology solution that would create healthier communities around the globe. Now, with 10 years’ experience improving public health supply chains, we hope that our experience in this area can serve as a blueprint for other global goods that are also charting a path to sustainability. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach for the long-term sustainability of open source projects, a strategic private sector partnership will enable OpenLMIS to establish a sustainable model and thrive for many years to come.
For further information, consult our new OpenLMIS Transition page and FAQs