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Malawi: Innovation, the digital divide, and politicians who shun the Internet

Although we are not quite there yet, the beginning of the year 2008 will mark one year when the two Global Voices authors for Malawi, Victor Kaonga and myself, will have been writing roundups on the Malawi blogosphere. Victor and I live half a world apart, and are always in contact via email and phone. But we had never met before, until this past weekend. We are in and out of Malawi, but never at the same time. That changed at the beginning of this month when we both flew into Malawi within days of each other, and managed to meet, albeit very briefly. We should be able to meet again, this time for much longer.

However our being able to physically meet for the very first time is not the subject of this roundup. Rather, our subject is the never-ending ingenuity of Malawian inventors and technology experts, while Malawian politicians continue to rely on traditional radio and newspaper presence, with hardly any presence on the Internet.

Dr. Cedrick Ngalande invents an electric charger

Victor Kaonga recently wrote on his blog Ndagha about Dr. Cedrick Ngalande, a Malawian aeronautics engineer who has just invented a generator that uses yeast and sugar to charge cellphones, laptops, and other electrical appliances in places where there is no electricity available. In Malawi consumer access to electricity is provided by a government parastatal, ESCOM, reaching a reported 7 percent of the Malawian population. As in many developing countries, especially in Africa, power is always intermittent, and a luxury enjoyed by a tiny minority of the population. Victor quotes Dr. Ngalande, describing his invention, as saying:

This gadget will be very ideal to developing countries like Africa where electricity is scarce. As you know, the growth of cell phone is fastest in Africa. The problem most Africans have is that they cannot charge those cell phones due to lack of electricity. Some have to walk long distances just to charge cell phones. My invention will make it easy for these people to charge their cell phones. Also, this generator can be used to charge $100 computers which are being introduced in Africa. It can also be used to charge or operate medical devices in rural Africa.

Dr Ngalande

Soyapi Mumba creates SearchWith software

Another piece of exciting invention news comes from blogger Soyapi Mumba, a Malawian software developer, who starts by explaining why he has not posted on his blog for two months. He quotes Dare Obasanjo, who is said to have stated that “Writing Code Will Always Be More Important Than Writing About Code.” With that quip, Soyapi announces on his blog the release of SearchWith version 0.4, a personal software project he has been busy with for quite a while now. He explains the utility of SearchWith, which can be found at Mozilla Addons SearchWith site: (addons.mozilla.org/firefox/2194), as a “search extension for Firefox, Thunderbird and Flock,” which enables users to “group search engines by service (content type) and search from the context (right-click) menu.” Soyapi writes:

Apart from big fixes, this version includes improvements to the Addressbar option especially in Thunderbird. Addressbar option now integrates well with Google's Feeling lucky feature.

Another enhancement in this version is that when you search with all engines for a particular service, SearchWith will automatically remember to pre-select all engines under that service, by default.

To select all engines or change this back, use the Advanced Search dialog which pops up when you hold down the SHIFT key while selecting a search service on the context menu or when you right-click without selecting any text.

Malawian politicians missing out on the Internet revolution

While Malawian inventors and technology experts pour their time and energy into technological advancements to benefit poor, disadvantaged communinties, as in the case of Dr. Cedrick Ngalande, or advancing Internet search engine software, as in the case of Soyapi, Malawian politicians have an almost zero presence on the Internet. Victor Kaonga writes in an article that generated a lot of comments on the Malawian Internet newspaper Nyasatimes, which he republishes on his blog, that no Malawian political party is known to have an official website, let alone websites or even blogs for individual politicians:

When it comes to politicians and parties, I was saddened to discover that no political party in Malawi owns a website, neither a blog which actually comes as a free package. I am sure our political parties in Malawi have money to have a website or if desperate then get a blog.

Kaonga cites a University of Malawi professor, Edrine Kayambazinthu, who points out that:

…most politicians in Malawi lack of access to computers, lack access to even the Internet. This “may explain why they shy away” from online communication. She pointed out that the politicians clamour for media access only through radio and newspapers which are readily available and do not depend on their individual literary skills and access.

Kaonga bemoans the poor quality of the official website of the Malawi government, contrasting it with other government websites where the President is available to answer questions submitted online, Uganda's Yoweri Museveni being an example. Kaonga wonders why Malawian politicians are Internet-shy, imagining that with general and parliamentary elections coming up in May 2009, one would have expected incumbents and potential candidates to extend to the Internet campaign efforts they have already started gearing for on radio and in newspapers.

It has been suggested by another University of Malawi lecturer, Chomora Mikeka, a technology researcher, that the cost of access to technology in Malawi is twice that of the Southern and Eastern African region. Most Internet access in Malawi is still dial-up, and wireless Internet in Malawi can cost anywhere between about US$80 to US$600 per month. The same goes for cell phone access, at around US$0.34 cents per minute, a cost so prohibitive most Malawians are reduced to an innovation called “flashing,” in which a caller dials a number and cancels it before the receiver picks up, so they can see a “missed call” message and then call the “flasher” if they have any airtime.

One would imagine that perhaps the high costs of telecommunication access in Malawi is partly a result of very few lawmakers fully appreciating the importance of hi-tech communications, which they apparently do not see much use for in their political careers. The Malawi Government recently announced the awarding of a US$23 million contract to a Chinese company Huawei Technologies to lay undersea fibre optic cables in Lake Malawi, in preparation for connection to the larger, sub-continental East African Sub-marine Cable System (EASSy), expected to become operational by 2009. according to Nyasatimes, the project to create a fibre-optic network for Malawi will take two and a half years.

News just in: In the Tuesday December 11 print edition of the Malawian daily The Daily Times, the Speaker of the Malawi parliament, Hon. Louis Chimango, is quoted as saying it is important for every single Member of Parliament in Malawi to be provided with a laptop computer. He is quoted as having said this after receiving a donation of 15 new desktop computers from the Taiwanese government, for chairpersons of parliamentary committees. The laptops would, according to Mr Chimango, afford MPs easy access to the Internet, among other opportunities. “In my view,” says the Speaker, “an MP without a laptop is like being in the driver's seat of a car which has no steering wheel or accelerator pedal.”

Coming to America: Update on windmill inventor William Kamkwamba

And finally, in the Wednesday December 12 edition of The Wallstreet Journal, African correspondent Sarah Childress writes about William Kamkwamba, the young Malawian who at age 14 invented a windmill for his house, and attracted worldwide attention. Among William's growing plans, writes Childress, he intends to build a new windmill powerful enough to pump well water, connect Masitala village to electricity from the windmill, and eventually connect others villages across the country.

This week William was invited to attend and speak at a one-day conference convened by two USAID-funded educational projects in Malawi, the Malawi Teacher Training Activity (MTTA) whose book donation to a school library near William's village started the entire William Kamkwamba phenomenon, and the Primary School Support Project: A School Fees Pilot (PSSP:SFP). The conference's main theme was to shape the way forward using lessons learned and knowledge gained from the two projects, with the participation of other stakeholders, including government ministries involved in educational activities in Malawi. Since William is still in school until this week, he was unable to go and attend the conference. Mr. Simeon Mawindo, the Chief of Party for both projects, and Dr. Hartford Mchazime, the Deputy Chief of Party for MTTA and mentor to William, are working to develop new policy directions that might benefit other young Malawians who are as talented and determined as William, but lack avenues through which to express their ingenuity.

And on his blog, William announces that he is headed for the United States of America for a short holiday, starting December 17 into the early days of the new year. He will be hosted by one of his American mentors, and will visit New York, Los Angeles, and San Diego.

 

4 comments

  • Congratulations on your first meeting! Thanks for an interesting round up of Malawi blogs.

  • Don Luka

    Malawian politicians are shunning digital technologies at their own peril, and even more sadly, at the peril of democracy and progress in this country. There can be no doubt that the internet has unleashed profound opportunities for mass communication. Politicians who really wish to have an impact on the electorate are increasingly harnessing contemporary digital technologies to reach out to their electorates and disseminate their political visions. To learn that not a single Malawian political party has a web site, and that not one single politician maintains a blog site, is saddening to say the least.

    The rest of the world is embracing digital technologies for advancement. Will Malawian politicians continue to ignore this vital tool for progress?

    Don Luka
    Melbourne.

  • Mark Phillip

    Here is the link to Dr Ngalande’s power source on youtube. You have to watch the whole 10 minutes to see what’s going on:

    http://youtube.com/watch?v=PvcqXFSu8gM

  • I found your blog highly interesting. It is frustrating to know that Malawian politicians are so reliable on very old mediums, and for some reason unknown to man, they choose not to evolve with the rest of the world. Do they not realise that the sole reason for people developing these technologies is to make life easier for the world? A few years ago i realised the effect I was having whilst in the UK studying – the biggest problem in Malawi is communication – everytime i contacted family in Malawi and tried to get certain information it was vitually impossible or would take weeks to gather – information that can simply be asked in here in Europe via google – and up it comes. Anyways this year in June i luanches a website known as Wawa Malawi http://www.wawamalawi.com – and it’s the first website in the world designed to get Malawi on the map and also extend Malawian businesses and Entrepreneurs to trade without the problems of rent etc. The website, unlike any tourism website, focuses on Malawi as a whole, therefore if a tourist was looking to visit – and wanted to know about health, education, site seeing, specific information on districts etc – it’s all there. Even though this is the only site of it’s kind in the world not one government official has recognised it’s even there, yet it has over 15,000 visitors per month.

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