It is just after six o’clock on a chilly Wednesday morning and 33-year-old James Kumbukani, a charcoal vendor in Blantyre, is already set for the day’s business.
As the first bunch of customers leaves his bench, Kumbukani fishes out his mobile phone with a smile.
“Neba kodi ndakuuza? Zatulukanso zinatu. Zamtsikana wa kunyumba youlutsa mawu. Wanditumizira cousin wanga, dikira ndikuonetse” [Neighbour did I tell you? There are some new nude pictures. This time it’s a TV presenter. My cousin sent me last night, let me show you,” said Kumbukani as he gives his phone to his business neighbour.
“Hehede!” laughs the ecstatic neighbour as he feasts his eyes in the contents of the phone message. Koma a Malawi ndiye akuyalukatu ndikubwera kwa intanetiku [Malawians are being exposed with the coming of the internet].
Kumbukani is a typical example of how Malawians are using the internet in today’s world.
Some 250km away from the commercial capital, in Mangochi, it is the first day of an annual conference of one of the country’s professional bodies.
Distinguished professionals are gathered to discuss how best to take their profession forward in the wake of growing competition.
As the keynote speaker delivers a presentation, about a third of delegates are busy smiling at their mobile phones. This is despite that the presenter has not yet shared the presentation electronically.
As Malawians continue abusing the internet by sharing nudity as well as funny video clips, other countries such as Rwanda are embracing the internet as a ‘treasure’ that needs to be protected.
Speaking during a Transform Africa Summit, Rwandan President Paul Kagame declared that “the internet is a needed public utility as much as water and electricity.”
In 2000, Rwanda began to relentlessly develop its information and communications technology (ICT) after it adopted the National Information Communications Infrastructure (Nici) policy and created a long-term plan to achieve full digitisation in four five-year stages.
The Nici plan was further integrated into Vision 2020, which is the government’s comprehensive programme to transform Rwanda into a middle-income country by 2020.
One of the main goals of Vision 2020 is “to transition her agrarian economy to an information-rich, knowledge-based one by 2020.”
Back in Malawi, statistics indicate that a bulk of Malawians is accessing the internet through mobile phones because of their relatively cheap cost as compared to computers.
With the country having about three million active mobile phone subscribers, about 1,828,503 of them were using the internet by December 2017, according to Internet World Stats.
Social media networks such as Facebook and WhatsApp continue to dominate internet usage on mobile phone.
ICT Association of Malawi Vice-President, Bram Fudzulani, said despite the growth in the number of people using the internet, most of them are using it on petty issues.
Fudzulani said the internet, if handled properly, could help propel economic growth in the country.
“There is plenty of evidence that the use of the internet could help fast-track development. A number of countries, including Rwanda, are using technology and the internet to transform the lives of their citizens,” Fudzulani said.
Of late, Malawi has seen mobile phone companies investing billions of kwacha in upgrading their equipment to ensure the provision of high-speed internet.
Last year, TNM unveiled the 4.5 G Long Term Evolution (LTE) network to provide Malawians with fast and reliable internet coverage.
Earlier this year, Airtel Malawi upgraded its service with the launch of a 4G LTE network.
TNM Head of Marketing, Sobhuza Ngwenya, said the high-speed internet available in the country provides a great opportunity for Malawians to effectively contribute towards national development.
According to Ngwenya, Malawians could use the internet to identify markets for their products and services as well as sourcing raw materials.
Ngwenya added that mobile money payment systems which have come about because of the internet have significantly simplified payments for goods and services.
“People could use the social media platforms to market various goods and services and make money,” Ngwenya said.
He added that the high-speed internet has, in some areas, helped communities communicate with authorities about poor service delivery in their areas.
Ngwenya said, with the fast internet around, communities could capture a short video clip or a picture of a poor road or school block which they could forward to authorities for action.
Minister of Information Nicholas Dausi said it is unfortunate that some Malawians are using an important tool such as the internet to spread petty issues, including pornography.
Dausi said there is need for civic education on how best Malawians could embrace the internet as a tool for national development.
Dausi said countries such as Singapore as well as South Korea have benefitted a lot from using the internet as a tool for national development.
“We could use the internet to transmit messages regarding weather patterns, prevention of diseases as well as promotion of good agricultural practices, just to mention a few,” Dausi said.
Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (Macra) Deputy Director for Legal Services, Thokozani Chimbe, said Malawians need to appreciate that it is a crime to transmit pornography and hate speech through the internet.
“This is a reminder to all of us that we do have a responsibility to make a positive difference online. By being kind and respectful to others and seeking out positive opportunities to create and connect, we promote positive use of internet.
“On the other hand, we can respond to the negative by reporting any inappropriate or illegal content as well as desisting from distributing or forwarding inappropriate or illegal content including spreading of fake news, sending each other nude or pornographic material, stories demeaning or harassing others, sending pictures of other people without their consent, graphic pictures revealing horrific events for example fatal accidents,” Chimbe said.
She said the laws of the country recognise that by posting things online, “we are now online editors”.
“And as editors in the physical world, we shall be held liable for any infringing content that we may post online,” Chimbe said.
So until authorities enhance civic education, efforts on the productive use of the internet as well as tightening controls to stem abuse, Malawians such as Kumbukani may continue abusing the ‘gold’ called internet.