Malawi’s troubled digital transformation progress
From prisoners conning credulous mobile money account holders and social media users getting jail time over their posts to farmers accessing crucial information on their gadgets, Malawi’s digital drive continues being an enterprise packed with opposing virtues.
One bright morning in January last year, Rhoda Sitima, a resident of the popular high-density shantytown of Mbayani in Blantyre, received a text on her mobile phone which made her smile from ear to ear.
Government was distributing cash to peri-urban dwellers who had been severely hit by the Covid pandemic which had disrupted movements and businesses.
“The message indicated that I had been earmarked for a share of the funds and it couldn’t have come at a better time,” the 43-year-old mother of four says.
Her house, perched on the edge of a heavily polluted stream that passes through her township, survived the recent flash floods and strong winds which were induced by Tropical Cyclone Freddy.
Persistent texts raining into her mobile phone, through which she had also received the message that she would get K250,000, warned her about a disaster likely to be triggered by the cyclone recorded as the worst to lash the southern hemisphere and the longest-lasting in Africa.
So she quickly fortified her house by wrapping its walls with polythene sheeting and digging out a trench to redirect the potentially coming raging waters.
“The messages were very crucial because they saved my family,” Sitima says from the weather-beaten partly roofed earth veranda of her house.
She constantly scrolls through the texts on her feature phone, the type of gadget that retains the form factor of earlier generations of mobile telephones.
It typically has just press-button based inputs and a small non-touch display. Sitima is still keeping the message which her mobile phone services provider had tracked down to Zomba Maximum Security Prison.
“The same phone through which I lost K50,000 received messages that saved my family. I still hope I will get my money back,” the widow, who distils a local spirit called kachasu for income, says.
The person who had sent Sitima the message followed up with a phone call through which he convinced her to send the money for processing her payment.
Unsuspectedly, the woman complied before she realised she had been tricked.
She reported the matter to police where she was told to keep checking with the mobile phone company.
“The company says they are still looking into the matter. I now feel there is some negligence on their part because I hear many more people have been swindled this way,” Sitima says mournfully.
The Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (Macra) admits that mobile money fraud is a huge problem in the country.
Macra says every month, cybercriminals steal about K120 million via mobile money transfers. That translates to around K1.4 billion in a year, an amount the regulator’s director-general Daud Suleman believes could scare people from using the digital space in money transactions.
“Mobile money, in our case, has become the fuel that is driving our digital economy because the uptake has within a short period surpassed what banking has achieved.
“But at the same time, Malawi is losing huge sums of money a month to mobile money fraud. This is why the Electronic Transactions and Cyber Security Act is important. It creates an environment where, as citizens move to the digital environment, they feel secure and have confidence that their money is safe,” Suleman said in May last year.
A report by the Reserve Bank of Malawi, which was released last year, showed that the number of mobile banking subscribers had risen by 7.9 percent in the first quarter of 2020 to 904,737.
The volume and value of mobile banking transactions also rose by 18.5 percent and 32.7 percent to 8.4 million and K125.1 billion, respectively, compared to figures recorded in the last quarter of 2019.
The Consumers Association of Malawi has consistently described mobile money fraud as an issue of growing concern.
“The fraud tells us there are gaps in knowledge about digital financial platforms. Consumers need to be protected. We, however, acknowledge the benefits of digital finance platforms,” Cama executive director John Kapito says.
Kapito dares government to implement strong regulatory systems to ensure that only genuine and traceable businesses transactions are done online with reputable institutions.
He says this will allow the growth of digital financial technologies that have the potential to increase financial inclusion in the country.
But the same Electronic Transactions and Cybersecurity Act, which Kapito and Suleman believe can protect people from mobile money fraud, is said to have its own gaps.
“For instance, Section 87 of the Act says ‘any person who wilfully and repeatedly uses electronic communication to disturb or attempts to disturb the peace, quietness or right of privacy of any person with no purpose of legitimate communication whether or not a conversation ensues, commits a misdemeanour and shall, upon conviction, be liable to a fine of K1,000,000 and to imprisonment for 12 months.’
“The reference to peace and quietness of any person in this offence is quite vague. Who decides that this communication is disturbing peace? At what stage do we say this communication is disturbing some quietness?” human rights lawyer Chrispin Sibande once queried.
He argues that such an offence is too broad and may be abused by State authorities, security agents and individuals.
Perhaps, that is how one Tumpale Mwakibinga got arrested in 2017 for likening that time’s first lady Gertrude Mutharika to a cartoon in a Facebook post.
Earlier that year, 23-year-old Protazio Nkhoma was handed a 42-month jail term over a Facebook post in which he had alleged that Malawi Professional Boxing Control Board president, Lonzoe Zimba, had shot and killed two Americans in his house.
The court ruled that the Facebook post was defamatory and injurious to the reputation of Zimba.
“That is what the law may say, but we must also accept that laws must protect people’s lives. That, however, also calls for users of social media platforms to use them responsibly,” Sibande says.
Still, Malawi’s advancement in digital technologies—albeit being laggard—is said to have improved sectors such as agriculture.
Smallholder farmer Ethel Victor in a village stretching across a hilly location in Balaka east has grown accustomed to getting lessons about how to prepare her crop fields through her mobile phone.
At the peak of the Covid pandemic in Malawi, physical interactions between farmers and extension experts were suspended, forcing authorities to find ways of ensuring communication continued.
“The extension worker in our area consistently sent us, farmers, messages to do with new farming methods.
“Those with smartphones even received video tutorials on making organic manure to improve crop yields,” Victor says.
ADEPT—Victor makes manure
The practice has become a significant part of the interactions between the extension officers and farmers in Malawi, with physical interactions becoming rare.
“Why should we constantly physically meet when I can explain everything to farmers through a demonstration video?” queries Thaulo Osman, an Agriculture Extension Development Officer responsible for a section where Victor’s village lies.
The United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) states that numerous innovative practices have been undertaken in Malawi’s agriculture sector.
The UN agency cites a World Bank-supported agricultural productivity programme for southern Africa, which aims at releasing 367 technologies to farmers, including in Malawi, as one of those entering the country’s agriculture sector.
“The private sector’s engagement is [also] worthy of note. For example, Microsoft provides information via SMS and voice platforms to farmers with the help of National Smallholder Farmers Association of Malawi,” FAO says.
Victor has received such messages before and boasts that her small feature phone typifies a giant packed with enormous lessons.
“We have to accept that physical extension work is no longer optimally there even in the absence of pandemics that force lockdowns,” she says as she starts mixing various ingredients dug out from a backyard landfill for making organic manure.
For Sitima, her mobile phone once had both the good and the ugly sides.
Today, even though she still feels the pinch of losing K50,000 to cyber thieves, she cherishes the good tidings the gadget brings.
“Perhaps without this phone, we would not be having this interview here,” she sums up as a message from a short code 321 beeps on her phone.
It informs her that she can call the special telephone number designed for high-throughput, two-way messaging if she wants to know how the weather will turn out in the coming days.
Alick Ponje is a features writer at The Times Group. He graduated from the University of Malawi with a bachelor’s degree in education, majoring in literature in English. Follow him on Twitter @aponje