Blurring the lines of communication
They come in different shapes and sizes. They connect individuals and communities in many profitable ways.
If exploited sensibly, the livelihood value-adding small pocket-sized gadgets have a special gift to turn lives around and increase individual or community income, improve agricultural productivity, reduce transaction costs, and offer great opportunities for innovative interventions, especially in service delivery such as health and education.
Multifunctional as they are, mobile phones offer not only the most important – voice calls – but also text messaging (SMS), image sending and internet data transfers, among other channels with which different populations can be reached.
In all their variety of designs and capabilities, the cellphones are handy and can comfortably be found in the pockets of the urban rich as they can be found in pockets of the rural poor.
Economic experts agree that combining mobile phones with other technologies, such telecommunication centres complete with computers and other communication tools, can enhance rural people’s potentials and capabilities.
Mobile phone and internet services in Malawi started in the early 2000 as an informal means of communicating between family and friends.
Today, they have been fitted with appropriate applications for business, health, education, environmental, agricultural and climatic information sharing and networking.
Unfortunately, ICT services in Malawi have not yielded the desired results for different reasons one among them being political interference in the operations of bodies mandated to ensure there is commitment to promoting universal access to the services.
Government has on many occasions claimed its commitment to facilitating improved connectivity for rural areas where ICT would help key social and economic development activities such as hospitals, schools, agro-businesses and disaster monitoring.
Since adopting ICT as a development strategy, the rural community continue to suffer from lack of ICT services because some Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are not interested to invest where the populations have low disposable incomes and little access to energy services such as electricity.
Eighty-four percent of the country’s households reside in the rural areas while the remaining are in urban set ups, says Wiseman Matchisa Banda, Director of Wise Web, an ICT consultancy firm.
He adds that only one per cent of the population has access to electricity the with the remainder depending on biomass.
Banda says connectivity in the rural areas is also hampered by unavailability and affordability of computers and other equipment, as well as skills for their maintenance.
“The biggest problem with internet and mobile phone airtime accessibility is their unaffordable cost by the low income populations,” says the Wise Web boss who adds low literacy rates, especially computer literacy among the rural populations, is another obstacle to connectivity acceptability.
Malawi’s telecommunications sector has been singled out as among the most expensive in the world.
The cost of using the internet and mobile phones in Malawi already shuts down social and economic opportunities for both households and industries in a country ranked 174 out of 187 in the 2014 UN Human Development Index (HDI).
To add insult to injury, during the presentation of the 2015/2016 National Budget, the Minister of Finance, Economic Planning and Development Goodall Gondwe decided to slap the rural poor with a 10 percent tax on internet and SMS usage.
But in a twist of events, Minister of Information Kondwani Nankhumwa stood up and challenged his Minister of Finance saying the imposed excise duty has the potential to erode the country’s economic gains as well as governments drive to rollout telecommunication services to the rural populations.
All this was taking place when the telecommunications regulatory body, Malawi Communication Regulatory Authority (Macra), was working at engaging mobile phone operators to consider reducing interconnection rates which are the highest in Africa.
Already the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has observed that on average Malawians use more than US$12 (7.70 pounds) a month on mobile phones.
The union says the amount is more than half of what an ordinary Malawian earns in a month.
The drama has been unfolding despite the HDI reporting that the living standards in Malawi are low and reproductive health, education and socio-economic status of many Malawians remain poor.
Though it is agreed at conferences that the telecommunication industry can change the ugly face of the country, growth in the sector continues to face governments indecisiveness.
It is further said mobile and internet penetration in Malawi remains very low in comparison to the African average.
According to the Internet World Stats only 931,054 out of the country’s 17 million population (representing a 5.4 percent penetration rate) accessed the internet by the end of 2013.
During the same period only 203,840 people accessed Facebook, representing 1.2 percent penetration .
By the end of 2014 there was a 36 percent mobile phone penetration rate, 1.9 percent fixed line penetration and 6.1 percent internet penetration.
Circle for Integrated Community Development (Cicod) Executive Director, Amos Tizora says mobile and internet service are mostly needed in the rural areas where the majority of the country’s population resides and often lack access to basic needs such as information on water, education, health care, employment and sanitation.
“Rural residents also require economic information on markets, social information for education, religion and culture, environmental information for natural resources and landownership,” says Tizora noting that “unfortunately, these will continue to elude the poor because of government insensitivity to their basic information needs”.
ITU notes that establishing telecentres fitted with computer and internet services, telephone, fax, photocopying, television, laminating and printing services has done very little in terms of promoting internet use in rural and underserved areas in Malawi.
“Apart from literate young men and women, almost all other groups are digitally excluded,” says the union.
ITU has therefore developed a new model that integrates economic growth for the poor. It recommends policymakers to develop policies that target the grassroots in a
holistic manner by involving all key stakeholders who promote economic growth at household level and those that promote ICT.
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