Virus that pushed Malawi to modernity


In Mzuzu’s old town is a market; very archaic but vibrant. It is called ‘Mataifa’.

The market is a hub of imported merchandise from Tanzania, Zambia, South Africa and even China.

Here, traders routinely travel abroad for restocking, and sometimes bring in new fashionable merchandise.


But the trend suddenly changed when, in March 2020, tyrant of a disease, Covid, penetrated Malawi, leaving no territory unscathed.

Ronnas Nyasulu—a business lady—says she could no longer travel outside to import goods.

Among many restrictions, and in a desperate attempt to contain the further spread of the contagion, a travel ban was imposed by the government.


“This literally meant closing shop. The disease hit us very hard,” she says.

Nyasulu recollects hearing from a friend about online shopping.

“At first I doubted it. Then I tried to order goods from Tanzania through a Whatsapp group, I paid online and it worked very well,” she says.

It is now over six months since she went to Tanzania’s Tunduma or Kyela markets for orders.

Halifah Saidi, her counterpart, is a member of the Cross-border Traders Association.

She says, on average, she could spend close to K200,000 on transport and accommodation alone.

But today, transactions are done on the phone in the comfort of her home.

The pandemic, which wreaked havoc on most sectors of the economy, remains a blessing in disguise; it has pushed up digital financial services uptake.

Figures from the Reserve Bank of Malawi (RBM) show that the number of mobile money subscribers rose from 6.2 million in 2019 to 12.2 million in 2022.

Further, the number of mobile banking subscribers rose from 838,735 in 2019 to 1.3 million in 2022

In the period under review, the number of internet banking subscribers rose sharply from 197,565 in 2019 to 260,398 in 2022.

The trend was the same with the number of Point of Sale (PoS) devices deployed, which rose from 2,322 in 2019 to 4,687 in 2022.

Somewhere around 2019, the central bank hinted at enforcing regulations mandating all businesses to adopt at least one digital financial services payment channel.

RBM spokesperson Ralph Tseka says, of late, the central bank has seen a number of micro, small and medium-scale enterprises adopting digital payments channels, be it mobile money, mobile banking or even POS.

This is in compliance with the Business Licencing (Deployment and Usage of Electronic Payments) regulations which were issued in 2019 under the Business Licencing Act.

“Online electronic payments can be made, irrespective of one’s location or time, and there is no need for one to either visit the service provider’s branch or stand in queues and, therefore, this saves time,” he says.

He adds that the systems keep an audit trail of all electronic transactions processed and, therefore, it is easy to follow transactions that have been processed.

Tseka further said electronic payments provide a better customer experience and convenience, as people can transact from the comfort of their homes and reduce currency management costs as there is less handling of cash.

“Owing to the many benefits that accrue to the country with increased usage of electronic payments, Malawi needs not lag behind but join the rest of the world in embracing electronic payments to ensure efficiency and safety in the National Payments System,” he says.

Consumers Association of Malawi (Cama) Executive Director John Kapito says the electronic payment system is the way to go.

He, however, points at bottlenecks; digital money fraud and cost of transactions.

“When one looks at the cost, it is really exorbitant. In some scenarios, both the sender and the receiver are charged. This multiple charging is preventing some people from joining the digital spectrum.

“On the other hand, people are being duped every day. One wonders who is regulating the selling of sim cards found everywhere in the streets?” he wondered.

While upbeat that Malawi is ready for digital payments, ICT Association of Malawi President Clarence Gama says awareness and investments in the sector are critical.

“We need to continue doing investments because these online transactions are at the back of stable infrastructure. So, we really need to continue investing so that it is stable because we are ready and we need to continue growing.

“The biggest solution that we can use, in terms of curbing fraud, is awareness. We need to let people know in the rural areas that, for example, when receiving funds through Airtel Money, a number that will send the message will be that from Airtel; equally TNM Mpamba,” he said.

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