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Browsed and clicked, again and again

The cubicles in the telecentre have name tags pinned on them; names of peaks on Mulanje Mountain, a tourist destination of global profile.

Here, in this facility, foreign backpackers, middle-budget, luxury and high-end foreign visitors, bird watchers and climbers and local tour guides and porters make a significant portion of the clientele.

“That’s why we decided to name the cubicles after the peaks on Mulanje Mountain. These peaks are some of the features that attract tourists from around the world to the mountain,” says Godfrey Mbulaje, Manager of the Chitakale TDC telecentre.

Naming the cubicles after the peaks is one of the facility’s ways of promoting tourism in Malawi and, at best, a way of giving back to the sector that feeds it.

Mbulaje says when tourists call in, they ask about these and other features about the mountain.

They use the internet service which the telecentre provides to search for information about the mountain and about Malawi.

“They in turn arrange visits, helped by local tour guides and porters,” Mbulaje says.

Tourist attraction

Mulanje Mountain is an incredible piece of geography.

It is swathed in timeless folklore and artefacts, features that flourish in the spiritual quiet of its cragged slopes and among its rich, almost primordial biodiversity.

Its narrative is fervently told by the hisses and gurgles and splashes of its many perennial, somewhat pristine brooks and rivers that majestically bear down in all the directions of the mountain.

Rising over 3,000 metres above sea level, the mountain is the highest in south-central Africa, a perfect spot for anyone who desires to stand on the shoulders of a giant so they can become giant themselves.

It is Mother Nature’s ground for the endemic, highly-prized Mulanje Cedar which is now on the Red List of Threatened Species of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

This scented, biblical tree adds to the six other different plant communities where the dominant vegetation, according to a brief for the Mulanje Mountain Biodiversity Conservation Project, varies with altitude, relief, aspect, rock form and soils.

The brief records that the afro-montane ecosystem on the mountain includes a large selection of endemic flora and fauna species.

This comprise in part the largest number of butterflies found in Malawi at over 100 species five of which are endemic, over 600 species of plants 41 of which are endemic and numerous endemic reptiles and fish.

Declared a biosphere reserve by the Unesco, Mulanje Mountain is one of the key sites in Africa for rare bird species for which it forms part of the Tanganyika-Nyasa Mountain Group Endemic Bird Area.

Due to its species’ richness and high levels of endemism, the mountain was identified by the World Wildlife Fund as one of the 200 eco-regions in the world for the conservation of biodiversity and designated as an Afromontane Regional Centre of Endemism.

Admittedly, human and natural activity has resulted in some decline in the richness of this biodiversity.

But the mountain remains an undiminished treasure to the country – a piece of creation that still keeps enthralling tourists from around the globe.

It still has everything to market it to the world for.

It remains such an enchantress, a microcosm that heals the drudgery and dreariness of the outer world, as Este Louw, a South African national, would testify.

Louw visited the mountain for the fourth time in December 2010. But after eight good days on the mountain, she craved for more time.

“It is extremely difficult [to say goodbye],” she said, writing in the January- March 2011 Sapitwa magazine produced by the Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust.

“We thought that eight days would be more than enough, but we were wrong. I realise now that I’ll be able to stay here for a year and still not want to go back to the ‘real’ world. The world where we’ll have to deal with difficult decisions, unfriendly people, materialism and money,” said Louw.

In fact, a report by the Mulanje District Tourism Office for the period 2000-2013 shows significant tourist visits to the mountain, even if dipping in 2013.

According to the data, the annual growth rate of visitors to the mountain rose from 14.5 percent in 2000 to 52 percent in 2010, before declining to 40 percent in 2013.

ICT grows tourism

The tourism office attributes these rising tourist figures in considerable part to the growth of ICT services in the district.

Richard Buya, a tourism assistant based in Mulanje district tourism office, says internet connectivity and proliferation of ICTs in general in the district have been facilitating tourist transactions, bookings and reservations.

“ICT has helped us to better market Mulanje and in handling tourist bookings on accommodations and restaurants, hiring of tour guides, itineraries and other general tourism information,” he says.

The technologies have also hugely aided tour guides, the must-have errand boys powering tourism anywhere in the world.

Buya describes the guides as the principal interface between tourists, the attraction sites and the local community.

To guide tourists expertly, guides need necessary knowledge and skills.

They need to be able to responsibly mediate the social-cultural, ecological and economic aspects and susta inabil i ty of tourist encounters with the local community and the natural environment, so says Buya.

“ICTs have helped tour guides to establish virtual business networks with other tour operators, individual persons and tourist establishments.

“They have assisted the tour guides in searching information, sending and receiving mails and answering booking inquiries on their emails on accommodation,” he says.

Speaking on telephone, a tour guide, Maxwell Mambo, said courtesy of ICT, tour guides and porters in the district are now able to search for useful information with which to improve their interpersonal skills, know what other people in the field are doing in other parts of the world and how to organise and conduct tours.

“That has had a positive impact on the quality of the service we deliver. Chitakale telecentre is one of the internet cafés that has helped us to improve our way of doing things,” he said.

Beyond tourism

And the customer base of the telecentre isn’t just tour guides and porters and tourists.

At the time of our visit to the facility two weeks ago, there popped in a middle-aged man, sweating on his face.

Sam Mpikamezo, a teacher at Mapesi Community Day Secondary School in Thyolo, has known the telecentre from the time it was established in 2011.

He made use of its services to upgrade his teaching qualification.

“I have used this facility for online searches and to photocopy various books and pamphlets for my further education. I have a diploma now, thanks in large part to this telecentre,” he said.

Now he had come to district education division office with some letters to do with his work. But he also needed to type his letter to the Teaching Service Commission notifying them that he now had acquired a new qualification.

Mpikamezo makes the list of the telecentre’s users which includes students from the district who are enrolled into different universities across the country, various professionals, pupils from far and wide schools within and outside the district and small holder tea farmers who use the café to search for information on global tea prices.

Connectivity woes

But the facility has had to grapple with challenges of high price of consumables and, particularly, erratic internet connectivity.

“I can say internet connectivity has been our biggest let down thus far,” says Mbulaje.

Buya, too, stresses the need for ICTs to advance further in the district.

He calls for enhanced infrastructure, which he says should include more stop centres offering ICT services, alongside three others located at Mulanje boma alone.

“There is also need to improve on the quality of service provided by internet service providers. This is essential for the further growth of tourism in the district,” he says.

Television White Spaces project

But the question of unreliable internet connectivity could meet its match in a project which Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (Macra) has implemented in the district.

At the time of this reporter’s visit, officials from Macra had just left the telecentre after fixing an installation under the Television White Spaces project.

Jonathan Pinifolo, Deputy Director of Spectrum Management at Macra, says the project is intended to enhance internet connectivity in targeted rural areas.

Already implemented at four other sites in Zomba where internet is up since September 2013, the project is aimed at increasing internet penetration in Malawi which is currently at a very low 4.7 percent.

“Our target is 25 percent by the year 2020. Our focus is in the rural areas where Average Revenue Per User (ARPU) is quite low and investors will normally shun such areas because they don’t see a business sense.

“You will agree with me that most advanced ICT services are concentrated in the cities only and selected districts. A very good example is 3G networks,” says Pinifolo.

The project has so far connected Chitakale TDC telecentre, alongside Mulanje Secondary School.

Pinifolo says the Chitakale telecentre connectivity alone is expected to benefit around 15 surrounding primary schools through access to teaching and learning materials.

More than education

The project might be intended to boost education.

But in a district like Mulanje, the seat of a world class tourist pearl, tourism must have gotten just the much needed additional click of the mouse.

Government lists tourism as one of the key priority growth sectors for which it seeks serious ICT investment.

It says ICT has great potential to stimulate, modernise and sustain processes and systems in the tourism industry.

Thus, in the National ICT policy, government says it shall encourage the utilisation of ICTs to ensure that Malawi’s presence as a unique and attractive tourist destination is recognised globally through provision of up-to-date tourism information.

The Television White Spaces project could just as well be the timely response.

And if anyone is in doubt, Mbulaje isn’t.

“This installation will boost our role in promoting tourism here and also education. We have been looking for this opportunity and we are so delighted,” he beamed.

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