The talk in Malawi for the past week has been about mass demonstrations organised by civil society on July 20 and the violent government crackdown that resulted in the deaths of 18 people countrywide. There are a myriad issues Malawians wanted to express frustration about, but top on the list has been the fuel shortages that have been on and off since 2009. There is a severe fuel shortage right now, and it has been going on since early June.
To make matters worse, the Malawi Energy Regulatory Authority (MERA) banned the sale of fuel in containers, leaving stranded thousands of Malawians who own generators, maize mills, irrigation pumps, and other machinery that could not be physically driven to a filling station. It also made it difficult for people whose vehicles run out of fuel away from a filling station. The ban was eventually reversed after a court injunction and a public outcry.
To save drivers the trouble of running around and burning fuel in a futile search, Frederick Bvalani, an active presence in Malawi’s social media sphere, set up a Facebook page called Malawi Fuel Watch. Currently numbering 871 and steadily rising, the members post on the page queries about where they can find fuel, and updates about which filling stations have fuel, how long the lines are, and other information.
According to Internet World Stats, as of June 2010 there were 716,400 Internet users in Malawi, out of an estimated population of 15,879,252 people, representing 4.5 percent of the population. By March 2011 there were about 79,040 Facebook users in the country, representing a 0.5% penetration rate. The Malawi Stock Exchange estimated that at the end of 2010 mobile penetration in Malawi had risen to 23 percent, according to an article on the Investor Relations in Africa website.
Steve Sharra (SS): Tell us about yourself. What do you do?
Frederick Bvalani (FB): My name is Frederick Bvalani. I am married to Edna and we have two children. I stay in Blantyre. I work as a Billing Supervisor at Malawi Telecommunications Limited (MTL). I was born and raised in Blantyre, Malawi. After secondary school, I studied for a Diploma from the Institute for the Management of Information Systems (IMIS) and a number of IT certificates. I have also been trained in Oracle and Linux. I am currently doing an Advanced Diploma in ICT Systems Support at the University of Malawi Polytechnic.
Except for two years when I worked in Systems Support and Network Administration, I have been working in Billings designing and running queries and reports and providing support for Billings Systems users.
I am a Christian, a member of Word Alive Ministries International.
SS: You once wrote that it was somebody outside Malawi who suggested the idea of a Facebook group to track fuel availability. Why Facebook and not other social media tools?
FB: Yes it was my friend, Kondwanie Chirembo, a Malawian who is currently working in Botswana. He suggested the creation of a group after seeing that several Facebook updates from us (his Malawian Facebook friends) asking for where we can get fuel. He had mentioned before but when he mentioned it again I decided to create it.
He suggested a group but I thought maybe a page would be better because I wasn’t comfortable with adding people to a group without giving them a chance to accept or refuse. By then I discovered that a group would be the best way to do this and I created the group and called it Malawi Fuel Watch.
I added Kondwani to the group and he suggested that I make the group ‘Open’ so that members can add their friends. I made him co-administator of the group. He added the description of the group “Fuel shortages are said to continue … if you know there's fuel somewhere let others know so that they can spend less time looking around … also if you have hit a wall somewhere share it so that others don't hit the same wall!” which is the main purpose of the group.
Why Facebook? I think it is because Facebook is the social network that has the largest concentration of Malawians than other social networking sites and that’s where a lot of people tend to “hangout” and share information when they are online. Facebook was also ideal because people who have Internet on their mobiles; they use it while on the move which means the information about the availability of fuel would not wait for the person to find a computer to post it.
SS: It’s been more than a month a now since the group was created, on June 10th. What will happen to the group once the fuel situation normalises, if it will?
FB: I think that is something that the members of the group may have to discuss but very likely it will remain in case the fuel problem resurfaces.
SS: Tell us about how the group works. Who runs it? How many people are authorised to accept new users?
FB: As I have already said the group has two admininstrators, Kondwani and myself. All members are authorized to add their friends as members and to accept those that request although I have only seen one or two members accept a request to join. Mostly it is Kondwani and I that accept new users. Members can remove themselves from the group but they cannot remove another member. Only the administrators can remove a member.
SS: I only learned about the group when Victor Kaonga wrote about its creation on Global Voices Online, four days after it was created. There are 871 members, as I’m writing. Which day or week has seen the biggest spike in membership? Have you seen any members leaving the group?
FB: I think we have seen the group membership spike over the past three weeks as the fuel situation got more severe. Facebook does not report when a member joins but I know that a few people (less than 5) left the group in the early days; some of them may have rejoined. I think this may have been because we didn’t know that the problem would persist up to this day and some may have felt they no longer needed the group believing the fuel situation was stabilizing. I got only one request to remove a member in the early days.
SS: I have noted that people have used the Facebook page for purposes other than fuel hunting. What other activities have you observed?
FB: Members have used the group to warn each other about traffic police speed traps and other important tips for drivers, others have posted some humour about the fuel situation or cars in general. Others have expressed their frustration with the authorities about the whole fuel crisis and the pain that it is causing.
SS: Most of the messages I see on the Facebook page ask about or report on fuel in Blantyre, Lilongwe, or Mzuzu, and sometimes Zomba. Obviously this is because these are Malawi’s largest cities, in that order, and where most Malawian Facebook users reside. Are there places you have seen updates coming from, that have surprised you?
FB: I don’t know if I can say they surprised me but there have been a few posts from Mulanje, Chikwawa, Salima and Liwonde. [Editor's note: These are semi-urban towns in Malawi]
SS: Are there members who joined the group, whom you least expected to? What is the gender situation regarding membership?
FB: I don’t know a good number of the people on the group but I have noticed foreign nationals and at least one tour operator working here in Malawi joining the group. Some people use the information on the group to find fuel for their businesses. I managed to count about 126 women members in the group when there were 714 members.
SS: Observing how people are using the Facebook group, are there things one can learn about how Malawians use the Internet?
FB: Social media sites were previously thought to be for young people, who are tech savvy like those in the IT field (more like somewhere to play) but I think Malawians are beginning to realize the Internet can be a very useful tool.
SS: What other potential uses of social media would you like to see Malawians adopting?
FB: I would like to see Malawians using the Internet to bring positive change in areas like politics, education and development. It can be a place where Malawians learn to take initiatives and overcome their political, ethnic and geographical barriers to work towards common goals for a better Malawi.
SS: Any final comments?
FB: I have not asked in the group yet but I sometimes wonder if there are any people that joined Facebook or bought an Internet enabled phone for the sole purpose of joining the group.
SS: That's a good observation, considering the role that Internet-enabled phones can play in a country like Malawi. Thanks a lot for granting us the time to do this interview, Frederick. We'll keep watching the evolution of the Malawi Fuel Watch Facebook group.