ICT rising: Malawi’s new entrepreneurs
SOFTWAREBy BiztechAfrica - Feb. 11, 2012, 1:50 p.m.
By Gregory Gondwe, Lilongwe, Malawi
Four years ago, when Daniel Chiwinga and Kondwani Chimatiro met in the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) lecture room at Mzuzu University, in the northern part of Malawi, they had no idea that they would be starting a journey that could turn into their life's work.
The two young men, one from Kasungu and another from Lilongwe in the central districts of Malawi, have now developed a search engine they are calling ‘C-Finder’, spurred by the knowledge they have gained over the years that they have been studying.
The search engine will prioritise information from Malawi when a user conducts a search, delivering relevant, local content first.
Looking at the name ‘C-Finder, one would assume that the young men settled for it because their surnames start with ‘C’.
“The name C-Finder [has a] C, [which] means creativity,” says Chiwinga, who adds that their search engine is a product of creativity.
He says ‘Finder’ in the name was put there because they wanted to have a word that would be self explanatory.
Chimatiro adds that they would have thought of a local name to link the search engine to its Malawi origins but there were several considerations they chewed over, so eventually, the only national identity was put into the logo, reading ‘searching for Malawian info’.
“But after we sat down and looked at the future of C-Finder, we discovered that there are a lot to be done, you never know, it might not only be for Malawians, it might cater for Zambians, South Africans, Africans even for the world. So we made sure that we have to come up with a name which is more general, of course it’s for Malawi but the future might change,” says Chimatiro.
While many people study ICT courses, few develop and innovative new product.
Explains Chiwinga: “It depends on the attitude you have and how committed you are in this industry. It is not directly proportional to the academic knowledge you have garnered but it depends on how creative you are, when you learn those things in class then you should be able to transform them, you should be able to take those things and put them into practice and come up with something.”
Digitising and centralising Malawi information
Chimatiro says Malawi lags behind in ICT development. He feels those working in the sector need to be looking at Malawi in terms of what is needed as a country.
“But first of all, for us (Malawians) to achieve what we need, in development, socially, technologically, we need information,” he says.
Adding that this is why they came with an idea on how best they can deliver information to people, and how people can access information.
He says they thought that the only way to deliver information is to centralise all Malawian information, that cuts across a wide range of disciplines like history, literature and more.
“This is why we devised a search engine with a central hub for that information; all Malawians can be able to access that information from the central repository. The idea is to provide information to Malawians since information in Malawi is difficult to access,” says Chimatiro.
His colleague Chiwinga agrees with him: “In Africa and Malawi in particular, many people do not access technology because it is expensive and we want to come up with ways of developing low cost technology so that everybody can be able to afford.”
Chiwinga said the other thing is that a lot of information in Malawi which is being provided by Malawians themselves cannot be found on the internet.
He says this is because nobody has put that information on the internet.
“We have a lot of information concerning Malawi which is in hard copy so we want to digitalise that information so that it would be in soft copy and then we put it on C-finder so that other people can find that information by using C-finder search engine,” explains Chiwinga.
He says anyone who is in the ICT sector must take up the responsibility of loading important information on the internet.
How C-Finder differs from other Search Engines
Chiwinga said the difference between C-Finder and other search engines is that theirs is focusing on Malawi information.
“For example if you search for a word ‘admission’ on Google it is going to bring you a lot of universities that are offering certain programmes but if you write admission on C-finder it is going to bring you universities and colleges from Malawi,” he says.
He adds that then C-Finder will reduce ‘hunting ground’ for those looking for information where as when one uses Google they are going to be overwhelmed with the amount of results that will appear.
The other thing, Chimatiro says is that Malawian results on Google may be ranked very far because you can find over thousands and thousands of results but with C-Finder the search for terms about Malawi will be indexed at first.
At the moment when one search for something, like ‘Gregory Gondwe’ using C-Finder handful results appear which is in contrast with thousands of results that will appear when using Google.
Chimatiro says this is because at the moment C-Finder lacks enough space.
“Currently we have got very small database which is handling limited information, but as we go on and with resources permitting we will handle almost all information in the world as well as Google is doing,” he says.
The two university finalists say they are currently working on trying to increase space so that they can index more information about Malawi, so that once anyone searches for information they can get a lot of results.
How C-Finder was Developed
Chiwinga says to develop C-finder they used a number of technologies.
He says they have also made their search engine link with other already established sources on the internet using ‘Spidering Technology’.
In this technology, Chiwinga says when one puts a search term on the search text box on C-Finder search engine it spider other websites looking for the information which is relevant to the search term which one has put on the search text box.
Where C-Finder is hosted
Chimatiro says currently, C-Finder is being hosted in South Africa by a company called ‘Multinology’.
“So far we have invested about K40, 000 (USD245) which was used to buy some space to allow at least use a sub-domain name at the moment,” says Chimatiro.
He explains further that they chose to host it in South Africa because in Malawi there are a lot of energy challenges which cannot sustain their innovation.
“A facility like C-Finder is something that people live with and if one day it disappears online, then that will not be fair to the people,” says Chimatiro who adds that electricity reliability in South Africa left them with no other option.
He says nonetheless, if there is a possibility that they can get any support like generators when there is electricity outage, then there will be a possibility to host it in Malawi.
Financing formation of C-Finder
Chimatiro says to be able to come up with C-finder, they bought a sub-domain name as well as hosting space using resources they found by running ICT projects.
“We are able to build some websites and develop some software for some companies so when we got paid we used the money to buy hosting space and domain name,” explains Chimatiro.
He says if all goes well they may try money generating venture because they need resources to make this search engine continue running.
“Because if it just stays idle then it will be its end; our major challenge is to increase hosting space, we need a lot of money to buy hosting space, and we also need a lot of money to maintain this search engine because it is growing,” he says.
“The moment we will have many users the search engine will need a lot of maintenance and improvement. We never know in future this might be a business venture,” adds Chimatiro.
More than just search
The innovative pair has developed a lot more than just C-finder.
Chiwinga says they have developed software for Lilongwe Technical College which helps students to see their examination results on the internet.
“Another one concerning database helps the college authority to manage their students at the college,” he says.
The colleagues have also developed a website for Lilongwe Water Board that enables people to check their water bills on the internet.
He says they also developed software for a firm called Northworks Motors Ltd which is being used by the company’s engineers to track cars that have been repaired and parts that have been sold on that day.
Chimatiro adds that they have developed a number of software tools, some of which are standalone software like the one being used by Northworks besides a number of web-based applications as well as websites developed over time.
“We have developed more than 10 websites for Malawi and US users,” he says.
Family and academic support
On the question of where support comes from for entrepreneurs like themselves, that credit industry leaders, their teachers and their families.
Chiwinga says when they first got to the university in the first year, their minds were “very blank” but continuous lessons helped their eyes to open up.
“Family and academic life has shaped me to become what I am,” he says.
He says his family has always encouraged him and what his siblings have achieved has also inspired him.
“I have a brother who studied technical education and because in their programme they learnt electronics he is very good with hardware. With his interest in the ICT field I have learnt a lot from him,” he says.
Chiwinga says using technology that he learnt in class he has been able to come up with a wide range of technologies, including the search engine.
“It also helped me to have my eyes open up and see what others were doing in the field of ICT,” he says.
On the other hand Chimatiro says there has been a lot of encouragement, support, from mentors, lecturers and fellow students who have helped him too.
“The international community has also influenced me so much. One quickly coming to mind is the guru that died last year – Steve Jobs, CEO for Apple. He motivated me a lot especially with his history,” says Chimatiro.
His family he says, has been very supportive, especially his siblings who have always been there for him.
C-Finder: What lies ahead?
Chimatiro says the search engine is just the beginning. “There are a lot of plans in pipeline,” he says.
“Currently it is a search engine for Malawian information and if all goes well and we fix everything as planned, then it has to reach the whole Africa providing all the information that Africans need,” he envisions.
Chiwinga agrees with Chimatiro that they have big plans to develop a number of software solutions that will be able to satisfy the needs of Malawians.
“Currently software is very expensive, so a lot of the software found in Malawi is hacked or cracked. We want to come up with software which will be open source but also some software which will be selling at a low cost so that Africans and Malawians can be able to buy that software easily,” says a visionary and a more ambitious Chimatiro.
Chiwinga says it is not as if the search engine was their first innovation together, he says when they were in second year they developed a multimedia player and it is called Chiwinga Media Player.
Chimatiro says at the moment they are working on two major separate projects on software which will be out by the end of this month.
“The one that I am working on is called ‘Giant Plus’, this software will help people to be able to market their products, apply for jobs, get contact details, create events, even interact in different ways, including booking buses online,” he says.
His colleague is working on expert system software which will be called ‘Knowledge Bank for Malawians’.
“In Malawi you don’t need to sweat to get information may be for maintaining your door; for maintaining your phone or your vehicle. You’ll just need to log in and ask an expert or get data from the system then you can fix it at the same time. So we have a lot of software we need to work on to change Malawi,” he says.
The journey looks set and rosy, and the two young innovators say with support they do not want to look for jobs once they complete their course. Rather, they intend to create jobs - even for their classmates.
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