Malawi’s backwater telecentres make inroads


Image: Tony Mkunika, Chitipa internet café attendant. Behind him, evidence that Sage software reaches deep into Africa's rural areas . By Vitus-Gregory Gondwe
Tony Mkunika, Chitipa internet café attendant. Behind him, evidence that Sage software reaches deep into Africa's rural areas

By Gregory Gondwe, Lilongwe, Malawi

28-year-old Abraham Sinyenga, a resident of the Malawi border district of Chitipa, had never heard of the internet until two months ago.

Chitipa, 691 km from Lilongwe, is bordered with Tanzania in the north-east and Zambia in the west. The area now has an internet Point of Presence (PoP), making it possible for locals to go online for the first time.

Sinyenga says a relative working in South Africa asked him to open an e-mail account for easy communication, after hearing that Chitipa has now an Internet Point of Presence (POP).

 “For the last three years that he has been in South Africa we used to communicate through mobile phone, but since last year he had started telling me that there was some strange way of communication which was now available in Chitipa,” said Sinyenga.

He told me that there was some strange way of communication which was now available in Chitipa.

Sinyenga set about finding out more. He discovered that to access this new communication, you needed to have a computer, something he was also hearing for the first time, despite having attained an O level in 2009.

“This set me into a mission of learning where I went to the district administration headquarters where I was schooled of all what this internet fuss is all about,” he said. Sinyenge may have discovered where to access the internet, but he has not yet learnt to use it.

Taking infrastructure everywhere

The Chitipa telecentre arrived as part of the World Bank and Malawi government Infrastructure Service Project for Universal Access (AU).

For the past two years, the Government has been rolling out these centres through the national body that regulates Information and Communication Technologies in the country; the Malawi Communication Regulatory Authority (MACRA). Globe Internet runs the cafés as an implementing agent.

Information and Civic Education Minister Patricia Kaliati says the government is rolling out centres in all 29 districts spread out across the county, resources permitting.

She says the ultimate goal is not only to provide communication services to the rural communities, but also to grant ICT services which will act as catalysts for social economic development as highlighted in the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy.

Growing knowledge

At the Chitipa internet café, learning to use the new service is taking people some time.

Tony Mkunika, who holds an IT Diploma, is the Chitipa internet café attendant. He says the centre opened its doors on August 10, 2010, and that the people who use it most are students, the working class and religious leaders. He says many from within the community arrive with little understanding of what computers are and how the internet works at first.

Understanding is growing slowly, he says. Mkunika says internet lessons were supposed to be made available, and many people are eager to start learning computer skills. However, he is still awaiting training enrolment forms from the authority, he says, and currently only helps people to open email accounts and check their mails. 

 “At the moment all we do is sell them internet cards and take them through a process of opening email accounts. Usually they will tell us that they have a relative outside the country who has asked them to open an email account,” he said.

“We are selling K125 for a card that buys 30 minutes of time and this is all what they pay us,” he says.

Mkunika says he does not know what lessons should cost, since he expects the authorities will also indicate in the enrolment forms how much a person will pay for the lessons.

“Once the lessons start, they will be special days for training so that the business is not disturbed,” he says. He adds that each day an average of 10-15 people patronise the telecentre since it only had four computers.

Over to district authorities

Kaliati explains that the central government has played its part, and it now remains for the district authorities to do their bit.

“The developing of the Universal Access Policy is to specifically address access issues to the rural and under-served communities. How difficult is it for the assemblies to provide enrolment forms?” she wondered.

Kaliati says government policy emphasizes the requirements by service providers to roll out to rural communities to enhance ICT development in the country.

She notes that in order to encourage community ownership of the projects, it had been agreed that both the communities and government through MACRA should work as partners.

Under this partnership, the communities would show commitment by contributing labour and any support within their means while MACRA would provide equipment, training and technical expertise to make the project viable.

Local entrepreneurs will be encouraged to participate in the establishment of more centres in the rural areas as the aim is to have the centres fully community owned.

“It is envisaged that this will accelerate the process of creating more centres, accord more communities with access to telecentres, and broaden their knowledge through television and internet facilities,” said Mulonya.

While the authorities seems to have everything else set on the paper, on the ground, people like Sinyenga who is being targeted by the project are yet to enjoy the fruits of it.

“The good thing is that we have it here in Chitipa now and I am going to wait until lessons will be introduced so that I can start communicating with my relative using the internet,” said a hopeful Sinyenga.

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