Why telecentres are a forced initiative
By Gregory Gondwe, Blantyre, Malawi
MACRA thinks the telecentre initiative is a forced initiative because there are no legal instruments in place to provide for such facility without stint or limitations.
Currently Malawi does not have a national ICT policy to govern the operations of the ICT sector and MACRA says the prevailing policy document in the sector is the Communications Sector Policy Statement of 1998 which established reforms in the sector in terms of telecommunications, broadcasting, and postal services.
“Pursuant to the Policy, the Communication Act was enacted from where MACRA draws its regulatory mandate,” MACRA says.
The Authority explains that upon realizing the gap in terms of service provision between urban areas, which are commercially viable, and rural areas, which are commercially un-viable, it lobbied for the passing of the national ICT policy to encompass the establishment of a Rural Communication Development Fund (RCDF) catering for the rural and underserved areas.
“With the advent of the new technologies and the necessity to adapt the requirements of the ICT industry and further noting the importance of providing universal ICT services to Malawian citizens, the policy for universal access was proposed to be separated from the overall national ICT policy,” explains MACRA in a statement, which, among other things, explains the country’s ICT position.
MACRA says it drafted a Universal Access (AU) policy with funding from the World Bank, which proposed the establishment of the Universal Access Fund (UAF) to cater for the rural and underserved areas.
The establishment of UAF, the regulatory says necessitated a bill for the amendment of section 2 and 4 of the Communications Act as well as the introduction of a new section dealing with the establishment of the Universal Access Fund.
“Both the National ICT Policy and Universal Access Policy were presented to Government upon which a decision was made to merge the two policies into one over-arching national ICT policy,” MACRA explains. “This process is still on-going and the finalization of the policy us being coordinated by relevant arms of Government.”
The regulator says, in waiting for the passing of the policy to establish the UAF, they decided to come up with the telecentres.
This was in order to ensure that many people are reached with ICT services.
MACRA says apart from the initiative under the UA pilot project, it has also established other Multipurpose Community Telecentres (MCT’s) under various models through partnerships with Local management Committees (LMC’s), international organizations like the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and local entities like the Malawi Post Corporations (MPC).
Currently MACRA has facilitated about 50 MCTs spread all over the country through these various initiatives.
“Furthermore, MACRA will soon embark on the implementation of the Connect a Constituency Project which seeks to establish at least a Telecentre in all the 193 constituencies in Malawi,” says MACRA.
In this project which has already started taking shape in other constituencies, MACRA is providing the infrastructure and ICT equipment, while the National Assembly and other government departments like the E-Government department under the Office of President and cabinet is providing content and other solutions to ensure that Government services are brought to all Malawians even those in the rural areas.
“This project will facilitate governance and e-government services allowing the rural masses to access relevant Government information within their communities,” MACRA says.
The regulator further states that when the National ICT Policy is eventually passed, it has proposed to work on the principle of providing subsidy to allow operators roll-out infrastructure and services to rural and under-served areas as was done under the AU pilot project.
“This fact is reflected in the New MACRA logo, which was launched last year with the words ‘Promoting Universal ICT Access’,” the regulating body says.
While all this is still a pipe dream, what is real on the ground are the telecentres and Tony Mkunika, a holder of an IT Diploma and Café attendant at Chitipa Telecentre, says his job is to teach the people about computers and internet as well as provide all other internet related services.
“Prior to the opening of this place we did put notices around the place where we announced the opening,” Mkunika said.
Ever since it opened its doors on August 10, 2010, Mkunika says most of the people that patronise the place are students, the working class, religious leaders and people from within the community who most of the time come without any idea what computers are and how the internet works.
“At the moment, I think people are now aware of how the internet works because of the announcement and explanation that was spread across,” he said.
A similar telecentre is also operational at Rumphi district headquarters, which café attendant Pinford Kawonga says opened in 2009.
“People from rural areas flock to this place to utilise the facility,” he claims. “You find that people will come here and ask you how you can assist them with a piece of information on a paper and when you check it you would find it is an email address, but they have no idea what it is.”
He says when you ask them they would tell him that they were given it by a relative who lives abroad and came to see them, and left it so that they use it to contact them.
In a day, he says more than 20 people patronise the facility – and at least between 5 and 7 of them are women.
He says for people to access internet they are supposed to buy Wi-Fi vouchers, which sell for K105 for 30 minutes.
“The challenge is that the service provider – Globe Internet – brings Wi-Fi vouchers that do not take long to run out but the company takes time before bringing us new vouchers again here and this really frustrates the users,” he says.
When all is said and done, success stories of the initiative keep coming while the country’s ICT policy is still undergoing drafting by the technocrats.