By Wisdom Ngwira
Till September, 2019, Elicy Phiri from George Phiri Village, Senior Chief Mtwalo in Mzimba had never used or seen a computer.
She says at least she learnt and read about computers from as early as 2014 when she was in Standard Six at Enukweni Rural Primary School.
“I first learnt of computers in primary school through Life Skills and Science subjects. I could see them through illustrations in textbooks but to see them physically was difficult as our school did not have one.
“As learners, we relied on teachers who would theoretically explain to us what a computer is, its parts and how it operates,” 20-year-old Phiri says.
Now in Form Three at Enukweni Community Day Secondary School, she says she memorised what she heard about a computer just for the sake of exams.
“There were some technical terms like central processing unit, mouse and others which we were told how they operate.
“It was really tough for us as we only had to memorise what we were told for the sake of passing examinations. I felt bad for this,” she explains.
Phiri, who aspires to be a nurse when she finishes school, had, however, a first physical encounter with a computer on September 4 2019.
On this day, Minister of Information, Civic Education and Communications Technology Mark Botomani commissioned Enukweni Community Telecentre, constructed by Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (Macra).
“At last, I have seen ‘things’ that I have just been reading about in textbooks for a long time. At least, I can now explain them with confidence,” she says, smiling.
Phiri has hopes that the community telecentre, situated just a stone’s throw away from her school, would spur her academic ambitions.
She says the internet connectivity that came with computers at the centre will assist her search for vital academic information besides being able to photocopy books she cannot afford to buy.
“We, learners from rural schools, find it difficult to compete fairly with our counterparts in urban schools as our friends have more access to internet which is useful in education.
“Again, just take for example, in my school; we usually have very limited books in the library. So, for one to access a book it is a struggle,” Phiri says.
Malawi’s ICT perspective
The 2018 Malawi Housing and Population Census concluded that Malawi is a predominantly rural-based nation with 84 per cent of its citizens living in rural areas.
Further to this, Macra and the International Telecommunication Union say Malawi’s internet penetration is at a meagre 6.7 per cent.
This then paints a gloomy picture that rural population access to the internet or ICT might even be worse.
Malawi’s internet penetration rate is about 6.7 per cent, which is seven times below the global average of 40 per cent.
A 2014 report by Alliance for Affordable Internet says Malawi is ranked at the bottom corner with an internet affordability of 28 per cent of Gross National Income per capita.
By that time, a 16.5 per cent Value Added Tax had not been introduced on internet.
With an introduction of a further 10 per cent excise tax on internet data for the 2015 to 2016 budget, Malawi should have the most exorbitant internet prices in the world.
To this effect, apart from internet services being expensive, they are not largely available in the country, especially in rural areas.
The situation, definitely, leaves rural communities in even very tight corners in as far as internet affordability is concerned.
Idea of community telecentres
Noting the poor state of ICT access and availability, especially in rural communities, government through Macra, mooted the idea to start providing these services to the rural populace by constructing and equipping community telecentres with ICT.
“We have two windows where we provide rural communities with these ITC services. In the first case, we have the Connect the Constituency frame where we are bringing ICT services in rural constituency communities by constructing telecentres there.
“The second window is the Connect a School frame where we are again funding construction of computer laboratories in rural schools so that even learners from neglected rural areas have hands-on experience of ICT services,” says Macra Director General Godfrey Itai.
Itai says the procedure for rural communities to benefit from these projects is for them to mobilise local resources like sand and bricks.
Macra then comes in to fund construction of the building and equip the facility with ICT and internet services.
“We hope that through this initiative, more rural communities will benefit and have access to vital ICT services as currently we have already funded 33 community telecentres in the first and second phases.
“Macra will further construct 23 community telecentres in the third phase which will ease and bridge the communication gap that was mostly disadvantaging rural populations,” Itai says.
Minister of Information, Civic Education and Communications Technology Mark Botomani believes rural communities stand to benefit a lot from the community telecentre project.
“Put in mind those rural women who struggle to access vital various sexual reproductive health services. With telecentres near them, they will easily access such information on the internet,” he says.
Senior Chief Mtwalo from Mzimba says rural communities who are predominantly farmers will benefit a lot from Enukweni Community Telecentre through market identification for their produce on internet.
“Many of my subjects are farmers, so I believe they will be able to know what prices their crop produce is fetching in parallel markets so that they have diversity in choice,” he says.
He further says elders who are in adult literacy centres will this time around have a chance to access ICT services within their localities.
Sustainability of project
Itai believes the project will thrive even after government stops bankrolling it since at the heart of it is community involvement.
“Like I said earlier, this is almost a community driven project. We have hope that this instils in them a spirit of owning the project hence they will be able to sustain it.
“Again, we have decided to be charging little manageable cost that users will be expected to pay so that it helps in maintenance of some few things.
Through this amount, the telecentres will be able to generate monetary resources on their own so that cumulatively in a long time they should be able to raise funds for sustenance,” Itai says.
M’mbelwa District Council Vice- Chairperson Morgan Tembo says the council will ensure the project thrives by, among other things, putting in place stringent measures on financial discipline.
“We will be periodically coming here to check on financial prudence from this project.
“We do not want to be in a situation where we will fail to run the centre on our own should government or MACRA pull out their financial resources,” he says