Malawi’s expensive mobile phone habit -BBC

One of the first things to strike a visitor to Malawi is the huge number of advertisements put up by mobile phone companies marketing their products.

Mobile phones expenses relative to income

Mobile phones expenses relative to income

Many Malawians own two Sim cards to avoid paying extra charges when phoning another network

Many Malawians own two Sim cards to avoid paying extra charges when phoning another network

“Muli bwanji? (How are you?)” reads one of the huge red billboards in the local language Chichewa.

Another colourful one shows the picture of a jet plane taking off, announcing cheaper call tariffs.

Everywhere you look across major towns in Malawi, you will see the attempt to entice consumers – from branding on umbrellas used by street vendors to T-shirts and even vans.

But mobile services are anything but low-priced in this country.

In fact, a report by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) says on average Malawians use more than $12 (£7.70) a month on mobile phones.

This is more than half of what an ordinary Malawian earns in a month.

Mobile phones expenses relative to income


  • Macau, China – 0.11% of average monthly earnings
  • Hong Kong, China – 0.18 % of average monthly earnings
  • Denmark – 0.19% of average monthly earnings

Most expensive:

  • Malawi – 56.29% of average monthly earnings
  • Madagascar – 52.55% of average monthly earnings
  • Central African Republic – 51.63% of average monthly earnings

Cheapest in Africa:

  • Mauritius – 0.79% of average monthly earnings
  • Tunisia – 1.62% of average monthly earnings
  • Botswana – 1.64% of average monthly earnings

Source: ITU: Measuring the Information Society Report 2014


In neighbouring Mozambique, consumers spend just more than a quarter of their incomes using their mobile phones.

The figure in Kenya and South Africa is significantly lower, amounting to less than 5% of average monthly earnings.

This makes Malawi one of the most expensive countries in the world to use mobile phones.

Court battle

“We have been complaining for some time now that the rates are very high,” laments a consumer in the capital, Lilongwe.

“Now researchers have shown the evidence that indeed we are paying a lot,” he says.

In a bid to bring down the charges in the telecommunications sector, the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (Macra) has commissioned an independent survey to analyse market trends.

Part of the recommendations presented by the experts is to increase competition in the sector, currently dominated by two operators.

Marca’s Ben Chisonga says the government might have to intervene to bring down the tariffs.

“We are thinking of introducing more data players in the market,” he says.

“For the current players, we are thinking of reducing the interconnection rates, which are about four cents per minute, which we believe, is the highest in the continent.”

In 2008, a third mobile phone operator was licensed for business in Malawi, but since then it has been embroiled in a court battle with the government after delaying a roll out of services.

Meanwhile, charges for making calls from one network to another have remained high, meaning many people prefer to have two Sim cards.

“We know that because of this, the mobile phone penetration is not as high as the 11 million we had earlier estimated,” says Mr Chitsonga.

“It might be around two to three million.”

‘Very frustrating’

The lead researcher who conducted the survey on behalf of the regulator agrees with these figures.

“Tariff discounts appear to play a far greater role in Malawi than in other countries,” says Andrew Dymond, noting that more than 90% of calls are made to the same network.

“This means that Malawian users take excessive advantage of promotional discounts which are only usable for on-net [same network] calls,” he adds.

However, it is not just the cost of mobile services that is an issue in Malawi.

Many consumers also want the providers to give them value for their money by improving the quality of service they get.

“There are times when the services are very bad, even the internet is very slow, so it’s very frustrating,” a woman in Lilongwe told me.

“Sometimes you want to make a quick call but then you can’t get through, so those are some of the things that I think they need to improve,” she said.

But in order for the services to improve, the government says it needs to upgrade existing infrastructure, especially in rural areas.

The authorities admit this could take up to five years, meaning consumers will have to continue incurring high costs for some time to come.

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41 thoughts on “Malawi’s expensive mobile phone habit -BBC”

  1. Keen Follower says:

    We are always the first. 1 poorest country inthe world
    2 Highest phone rates in the world !!!!!!!!!
    Even bank rates . How can a poor Malawian survive???
    Authorities you need not be reminded to intervene.

  2. john chambani says:

    Ama phonewa akuba tsopano mulibe network yodalilika mMalawi

  3. kachinda moto says:

    Malawians will all ways be backwards ever and forward never. Thats how they all brought up and will remain like that,All thieves every where .Government,bussness Indians every where smelling thieves.

  4. sure?? says:

    LUCKILY, WE HAVE A VP WHO KNOWS THE DETAILS AND INTRICACIES ABOUT THIS HIGH EXORBITANT RATES! HE can help Malawi come out of this or he can exarcebate it depending on his interests…

    He can tell us as Airtel ex CEO why he was keepin rates so hi!

  5. mangochi kabwafu says:


  6. Kanthu Ako! says:

    So don’t complain.

    How can a sensible person use over 50% of their wages on phone calls? You do not see anything wrong with that?

    If you feel the tariffs are high boycott the mobile phone, you sound as if someone forces you to use the phone.

  7. On says:

    Iwe Charter,

    A CAMA apa palibe business yawo. vuto ndi matama a aMalawi ambiri. Kukhala moyo wapamwamba ali a mphawi

  8. On says:

    Koma palinso umbuli apa. Ma comment ambiri akuwonetsa kuti people think tariffs are expensive. Actually the article shows that Malawians prioritize using cell phones than their other basis needs. Period!

  9. On says:

    I’ve long thought so!

  10. Charter says:

    Where is CAMA? Ntchito iyi!

  11. zandile says:

    We have a useless government. The minister of information Kondwani Nankhumwa is the worst performing minister. He does not know what happens in his sector.

  12. Atcheya says:

    And what are guys like Kapito, our MPs, the Executive doing to avert this unfortunate theft? It is quiet strange that it is at times cheaper to make a call from Europe to Malawi than make a local!!

  13. opportunist says:

    I would like to concur with this article. As for me i spend more than K25000 on air time per month .Unfortunately we don’t know who can assist us on this issue.

  14. Kaya says:

    We need Vodafone or MTN. Tired of these corrupt network providers

  15. Wax says:

    Kanthu ako?

    Boycott phones and use what now??

  16. Wax says:

    What pains me most is that some of these notable illegal business is being done in our face without any mechanism of arresting them. Do we really need to wait for international researchers to tell us that our consumption is high?? Really?? I hear Malawian complaining day-in-day-out about how expensive the airtime is, and it ends there. As if we do not have the government or watch-dog societies like CAMA. If communication alone eats up more than half of an average man’s salary per month, then what will be the share of other aspects like food, shelter, transport, school fees, personal developmental activities, etc

  17. Kanthu Ako! says:

    As usual Malawians decide to comment on what they want the article to say and not what it says.

    Earning low wages, has nothing to do with percentage of it spent on calls.

    What this article is saying is Malawians have their priorities wrong.

    Rich people are rich because they use their hard earned cash wisely, they do not give it to someone who does not give them something they cam benefit from.

    But Malawians oh no they have to complain about rates. Are you forced to use a phone? You are very happy to demonstrate on useless things, how about boycotting using phones.

  18. George Lihoma. says:

    I had used mobile phones in Zimbabwe,Botswana,RSA and Mocambique. What has been written here is the total truth,come on Malawians. Anthuwatu akutibera tikuwaona masanasana. Nawo a MACRA,don’t just make that research and sit on it afterall mupange research or musapange,koma mukudziwa kale kuti ma tariff athu ndiokweela zeedi.Pomwe ma services a Airtel/Tnm monga kuno kwaNgokwe ali very poor.Kupanga BB internet subscription mpaka kuutha network kulibe,IMAGINE.Bola a Airtel amene angoika kumene dzana dish yaikulu paTower yaawo. A TNM,timakukondani-mudzaika liti kuno? Hahahahahaha!

  19. Everything is expensive in this small country that why development is like an enemy.

  20. Victor Jumbo says:

    It’s very sad to note that Malawians who wants to embrace new technology by the use of mobile phones are being ripped of their hard earned monies through excessive charges by mobile phone operators who are making huge profits at the expense of the poor and the government seem to have no good ideas of protecting its own people from the clutches of Vultures . A caring government would have carried a prudent research long before granting license to these cruel mobile phone operators who are there only to reap more than they sow and preying on the poor and taking on the advantage of the incompetent personnel put in-charge of such corporate bodies and corrupt officials running our government . These people only cares for themselves and are always busy finding ways of enriching themselves first before everyone else. They say justice delayed is justice denied. These Marca people have serious questions to answer. Why should the Malawian people wait for more 5 years before seeing the tariff rates go down . This is not fair and will only make people more poorer. The government should interven now and not tomorrow. Learn lessons from this experience for the future use. Act now,,,!!
    Victor Jumbo, UK

  21. Achimidzimidzi says:

    Some how am not convinced with this report. Is someone trying compare a chicken and bull if they have same strengths or what.?

    Because I can’t see any reason why our $% is higher than other countries. Is excitement or poor financial management our part. Or its because we are being exploited somehow.

    How do you compare efficient economies with ours which has never been on its feet ever since without pinpointing where we’re doing it wrongly.

  22. Kika Kanawe says:

    I agree with Msilamu Okwiya that Malawi is a sick country in the ICU,it will soon die.The only solution is total resurrection to be performed by none other than Jesus Himself

  23. LimbikaGP says:

    Political will they say. Many developmental goals are possible in malawi but we need a new breed of leaders that do not pay lip service but make things happen. It will be a while before we get to that

  24. Kika Kanawe says:

    Prices of products like food and most services is very every expensive in Malawi.No wonder most of us we cannot afford decent life no matter hard working we may be and the end is high levels of corruption and other vices.The problem is that we don`t have leaders who put the welfare of their subjects at heart.I believe Malawi is a doomed country ever existed on planet earth.I cry for my country Malawi

  25. Djomba says:

    We really need to do sth. Eish one day I hear Malawi the poorest. Again the most expensive phone charges. What is our government doing? Corruption?

  26. Imtiaz says:

    Will Malawi ever develop,no wonder south Africa is charging R4 per minute if you calling from malawi.

  27. Imtiaz says:

    Will Malawi ever develop,no wonder south Africa is charging R4 per minute if you calling from malawi

  28. This means that their income is very low. $12 = 56% ? So how much do we earn?

  29. ujeni says:

    All this point to one thing, Malawi is not developing

  30. Msilamu Okwiya says:

    Za zii! Ours is a sick country that needs deliverence.

  31. DA says:

    This is because Hong Kong has the second largest GDP per capita in the world! It is a smaller percentage of peoples salaries because in those countries the earn up to 50x what people earn in Malawi. The actual price in malawi is cheap! The only reason we can’t price it on a percentage basis in Malawi is because 0.1% of the Average Malawians monthly earnings is below mk200. No phone company in the world can actually offer proper services for mk200!!!

  32. Chipoya LJ. says:

    Another factor that irk me most is that apart from these companies robbing poor Malawians, these network providers don’t actually meet their corporate social responsibilities or some other important social causes.
    All what we normally hear of them are adverts here, advert there almost in each and every media house, street, bars, buses and other places.

    Let’s we take for examples, how much money do these companies spend on adverts only? Do they want to tell us that people buy airtime or like their brand because of the advert we hear or see? Why can’t they halve the money they spend on advert and channel it to some developmental activities like drilling of boreholes, build clinics, schools even constructing tarmac roads in some residential areas like Area 24, 36, Phwetekere and others.

    They sometimes do conduct competitions and promotions where they can splash up K50,000,000 to one individual as if he is the only one buying airtime. Why can’t they use such money to buy medicines, books and other things which at the end of the day can benefit a lot of their subscribers. Why can’t they turn vehicles they gave to lucky winners to be hospital ambulances to benefits a lot of poor Malawians

    What I ve seen here is that these companies do capitalise on the ignorance of us Malawians. What pains me most is that you can see that there are more than 8 handsets in the 4 member family. If each of them spend K300/day on airtime, how much do they spend per month. Yet they are living in a dilapidated rented house and sometimes sleeping in an empty stomach. What’s the meaning of that? It really touches me to see someone with an expensive handset but failing to buy his/her parents even a bag of cheap fertiliser.

    My fellow Malawians, let’s we learn to be accountable and on some of these things. Mind you, if you can spend K500 a day on airtime, it means you spend about K180,000/year of which one can use to buy iron sheets for a house.
    Let’s we learn not to make calls or data just for the sake of doing it. Mind you, phones are for important communications not just for the petty ones.

    All in all, GOD Bless Malawians!!!!!!!!!!

  33. preckad says:

    I blame Macra because they regulate nothing but their own allowances and hefty packages .They are happy with the revenue they get from these mobile companies to the extent of forgetting that the purpose of Macra is to serve the people. From being the poorest country in the world to being the highest consumers in this field…..Guys come on!!!…..something is seriously wrong here…!

  34. gift kaunda says:

    get this.only last week our beloved malawi was officially rated the poorest country on earth by the world bank.this time it has been made official once more,malawi has the highest mobile phone call rates in the world.this is happening simply because our mobile phone companies believe in making super profits.their CEOs are not happy with profit margins of say 5million or 10millon kwacha.they want their profits to be in billions of malawi this way the CEOs are assured of hefty bonusses amounting to millions of kwacha.they smile all the way to the bank knowing pretty well that their country men are wallowing in poverty.the jury is out.they are milking us heavily with no remorse at all.i ask the relevent authorities to take the mobile phone operators to task.

  35. have says:

    Thank you for this article. Malawi phone companies are so elitist and they charge exorbitant prices that do not make sense anywhere in Africa. they do this and yet there service is so bad. When macra wants to regulate the phone operators pay journalists who just keep quiet or join in the unsubstantiated spy machine allegations. Malawians are indeed under false consciousness and rush to defend the rich at the expense of their own selves

  36. Patriot says:

    Malawians spend in average $12 a month meaning K5400/month.
    My poor poorest country in the World

    1. Elhapo says:

      I accept that the rates are comparatively high. However, in using the percentages one misses a very important point. That is the very low wages that Malawians get. And yet to get the networks to work the service provides procure their equipment from similar sources as everyone else. And to add insult to injury, we are landlocked!

  37. Alungwana says:

    Achi, its very unfortunate that our the CEO’S deputy was the one directing these heavy bombs when he was the airtel director.

  38. Nyani wa ku Mwananyani says:

    The telecom experience in our country is very pathetic, abale. Plain and simple.
    Those of us who have experienced services elsewhere, can attest to that. I am always frustrated, I can’t even begin to list the number of ways. There is something intrinsically wrong with this picture: when the poorest country has probably the most expensive mobile phone service. Corruption? Political incompetence? Just plain ignorance of telecom economics, so the regulators do NOT know what they are doing? Or what have you!
    I just shake my head in frustration, so often my neck aches. Unbelievable!
    My only hope is now that we have the prof. and his VP, a former telecom executive, overseeing the country, they will straighten things out. Or is this wishful thinking?

  39. Alungwana says:

    We have leaders who do not really care for the affairs of their people. I think its because they have everything at no price. We give them free food, free water, free electricity, free fuel, free air time,free Dstv , free toilets and free wives. How can they fight for the prices of such things?

  40. Achi says:

    This is very sad for a local Malawian.

    Every MTL has also followed suit with the migration of their system which now is very expensive on us. A along I used to believe that MTL was the pacesetter and they would help bring soberness on this cruel market, but alas!!!!!

    Should we say that our CEO at Kamuzu Palace oesnt see these things? Or he is too weak to sort out the mess? Hhow about his deputy who once was priding in this cruel industry?

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