About 150 metres north of Jalo area where MV Ilala and other ships dock, lies an imposing structure with a Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (Macra) logo. Its letters in bold scream “Welcome to Likoma Constituency Community Telecentre”.
Macra’s motto “Promoting Universal ICT Access” conspicuously sparkle under the logo reflecting the rising sun on the eastern horizon every morning.
All these features try to symbolise the availability of information and communications technology (ICT) services. But sadly, that is not the case. The project that promised to bring these services to Likoma is painfully dragging.
Since the project started in 2014, 17-year-old Thom Mataya has been looking forward to seeing himself in front of a computer at the centre.
Now in Form Three, Mataya is still waiting to satisfy his ICT needs and be at par with fellow students in urban areas where such facilities are at their fingertips.
“I was in Standard Eight preparing to sit for my Primary School Leaving Certificate examinations when this project started,” says Mataya who comes from Ulisa Nkhwemba Village in Traditional Authority Mkumpha in the district
“I had high hopes and was pretty excited at the prospect of having access to a computer. You know it’s not easy here to have this gadget at household level in a rural place like here,” he says
Construction of the structure to house a telecentre was completed years ago and locals are wondering why it is taking ages for it to become operational.
Many youths on Likoma and Chizumulu islands are equally frustrated with the long wait for a working telecentre.
Patrick Jonathan Chikoti is a 32-year-old student with Riverton University. He is pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Business Accounting under open and distant learning (ODL).
He studies with the university from the island where he works as Likoma District Civic Education Officer for National Initiative for Civic Education Public Trust.
Chikoti says he has been looking forward to the telecentre because ICT services are crucial to students doing school through ODL.
“For people like me who don’t spend all the time in a classroom, we largely rely on Internet research for all our academic needs.
“But access to Internet on Likoma Island is not easy. I always have to buy one gigabyte of Internet bundle at K4,800 every three days. Now you can imagine how costly that is at the end of the month,” he says.
The prospect of the telecentre generated excitement in Chikoti because that meant easy access to online books at very affordable cost. But all that excitement has disappeared.
The idea of bringing ICT closer to the people in rural areas through constituency community telecentres is billed as one of the great strides in expanding ICT service to the majority of the Malawian population.
According to Macra’s Strategic Plan for 2015 to 2020, the multipurpose community telecentres being constructed in constituencies across the country are aimed at bridging the digital gap by empowering rural communities to access and utilise ICT services.
When construction of Likoma telecentre began, Malawi’s Internet penetration rate was about 6.7 percent, which was seven times below the global average of 40 percent, according to Macra.
The establishment of rural telecentres wanted to inch up that low percentage.
On the island, the project started with a bang. Actual construction of the centre took approximately four months. Electricity and piped water was connected in time.
Getting inside, one is awed by the planted clean cubicles with almost all furniture in place. But Macra is yet to make complete deployment of computers to the site.
Likoma Constituency Community Telecentre Project Committee Secretary Davie Kacholola says it is Macra that is delaying the process.
“We worked tirelessly and with speed to complete the construction of the structure. Our understanding was that once we are done, Macra will send the consignment of computers, furniture and everything else.
“We should have been in operation by now. But, up to now, we have only received 10 out of 23 computers that were shipped few weeks ago via Nkhata Bay. We are yet to get the remaining 13,” Kacholola says.
However, Macra Programmes Manager Ndaona Muyaya said in an interview in February that all the consignment for Likoma was already shipped and what was remaining is Internet installation.
“Our target is to have Internet connection installed by the third week of March this year in all the centres,” he said.
But by end of March, the remaining 13 computers were nowhere to be seen and there are no indications that Internet connection would come soon.
Likoma District is predominantly a fishing economy with a large part of its population either directly or indirectly linked to fishing.
At the peak of fishing season, absenteeism and school dropout increases as some learners, having made quick money from fishing, get tempted to go out and spend on alcohol and other things.
The youth’s predicament is compounded by lack of many social amenities as most service providers have no branches in the district, presumably, due to transportation challenges.
The coming of the telecentre was seen as one of the positive developments to shape the social and economic life of the youth and the rest of the locals.
But one thing is clear: The islanders, especially Mataya and others, are impatiently waiting to use the facilities for their different needs.
“We are still waiting for the opening of the telecentre and we don’t want to wait in vain,” Mataya says.
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