Can the Internet transform the lives of poor Malawians?

At the recent World Press Freedom Day debate on 5th May, 2012, Arnold Munthali, online editor for Blantyre Newspapers Limited, lamented that Malawi government press releases can only be relayed to the Malawian media via a 20th century relic, the fax machine. This belies the strides the world, including the African continent, have made in harnessing the power of the Internet. Going by her recent State of the Union address, President Joyce Banda aims to maximize the potential of ICT in general, and the Internet in particular. But the digital divide in Malawi is so severe it is dumbfounding to imagine what can be done to make new media work for the transformation of poor Malawians’ lives.

As of March 31st, 2012, there were 140 million Africans on the Internet, out of approximately one billion people, according to the Internet tracking website www.internetworldstats.com. This translates into 14 percent Internet penetration on the continent. Of these 140 million Africans on the Internet, 40 million were on the social networking site Facebook. In terms of sheer numbers, Nigeria has the biggest number of Internet users, 45 million out of a population of 155 million. In terms of proportion, Morocco has the best percentage, 15.7 million people on the Internet out of 32 million, representing half the population. Egypt and Kenya have one in every four people on the Internet.

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Malawi’s presence on the Internet is one of the lowest in the world. Out of a population estimated between 14 and 15 million people, only 716,400 Malawians had access to the Internet as of March 31st2012, a 4.5 percent penetration. Of these, 127,780 were on Facebook. Our neighbours fare a little better than us: 6.4 percent for Zambia, 11.5 percent for Tanzania, and 12 percent for Zimbabwe. Mocambique trails Malawi at 4.3 percent. South Africa has 14 percent of its population on the Internet.

Taken as a whole, the growth of Internet usage in Africa is the fastest in the world, mostly due to the fact that the Internet is entirely new here. Between the years 2000 to 2011, Internet usage in Africa grew by 2,527 percent, according to the November 2011 issue of African Business magazine. Compare that with the rest of the world where Internet usage grew by 480 percent. African Business magazine puts the percentage of Africans on the Internet at 11.4 percent in November 2011, but by March 31st 2012 this had increased to 14 percent, going by the figures presented by internetworldstats.com. In the rest of the world 30.2 percent of the global population is on the Internet.

In Kenya Internet usage is growing more rapidly than in most parts of the world. In two years alone, the number of Kenyans on the Internet has grown from 2 million to 12.5 million. Up to US$7 billion is transacted through the Kenyan mobile money transferring system, M-Pesa. A mobile application used for conflict alerts pioneered by Kenyan bloggers and software engineers during the 2007 post-election violence in Kenya, known as Ushahidi (witness), is now used in 128 countries around the world.

A number of important points were raised during the question and answer session following the WPFD debate. Pilirani Semu-Banda, communications manager for UNFPA Malawi observed that in Malawi the Internet was still dominated by men. Other members of the audience expressed concern with the abuse that the Internet makes possible.

False rumours spread very fast, and others use pseudonyms with the sole aim of attacking and badmouthing certain individuals. One audience member pointed out that before he died, the late President Bingu wa Mutharika had suffered several early deaths, all of them maliciously spread through social media. A listener called in and said new media was contributing to a lot of wasted time, with students spending the entire day on Facebook instead of studying.

It is true that Malawian women are disproportionately underrepresented on the Internet.  A big part of this comes from the gender gap in office employment. In addition to the gender digital divide, there is also a class digital divide. I remember one primary school teacher complaining that every time they step foot into the computer room of a teachers’ college, lecturers makes it clear that primary school teachers are not welcome to use the Internet. This is a common problem in Malawi where people in superior positions monopolise the Internet, regarding themselves as more deserving than their subordinates.

The problem of false rumours is a product of unnecessary government secrecy. Late President Mutharika believed that he had a right to disappear from Malawi without explaining to Malawians his whereabouts. Rumours of his premature deaths could have easily been thwarted by simple announcements about his holidays or private trips. Several world leaders now use social media very effectively. Several African presidents are on the micro-blogging site Twitter, or facebook, or both. They include Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Jacob Zuma of South Africa, Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania, and Jonathan Goodluck of Nigeria.

If President Joyce Banda means every word of what she said about new media in her State of the Nation address on May 18th, she will not only use Facebook and Twitter, she will also encourage government ministries and departments to use social media to communicate with the growing number of Malawians who are taking to the Internet. With the 990 and 997 police emergency numbers effectively defunct, Twitter or Facebook could be a cheap alternative for the Malawi police.

An ambitious long-term goal for Malawi toward making the Internet useful for poor Malawians would be to start working towards equipping primary schools with Internet access. The National Strategy for Teacher Education and Development, completed in 2008, suggests starting with Teacher Development Centres (TDCs), although currently there is no actual plan to identify the necessary funds.

Individuals and the private sector can play a role here, as some are already doing. Part of this entails changing our attitudes about social class entitlements and perceived benefits. The challenge for Malawi is to find ways of making the Internet not only accessible for Malawians in rural areas, but also useful, with relevant Malawian content available in Malawian languages. Only then can we meaningfully talk of harnessing new media for national development.

*Steve Sharra blogs at Afrika Aphukira and for Global Voices Online. He moderates Bwalo la Aphunzitsi and BloggingMalawi online forums. He can be reached on Twitter and Facebook.

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