On Likoma Island, about 150 metres from where MV Ilala and other ships dock, lies a building with a Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (Macra) logo.
“Welcome to Likoma Constituency Community Telecentre,” bold writings on the building scream.
This is one of 31 facilities Macra has constructed to connect constituencies and promote universal access to information and communication technologies (ICT Access).
But the telecentre envisioned to bring transformative ICT services to the island district has been dragging since its onset in 2014.
Then, Thom Mataya, 17, was a Standard 8 pupil preparing for Primary School Leaving Certificate of Education (PLSCE) Examinations.
Now he is in Form Three—still waiting for the day he will sit in front of a computer to communicate with the world at his fingertips and acquire new insights from the worldwide web into things he learns in class.
His ICT needs remain unmet. He wants to be at par with fellow students in urban parts of the mainland who have such facilities at their fingertips.
“When this project started, I had high hopes and excitement with the prospect of easy access to a computer. Not many people have computers at household level in rural places like ours,” says the boy, from Ulisa Nkhwemba Village.
Construction of the building was completed in just four months, but the locals on Likoma and Chizumulu islands are wondering why the telecentre is taking ages to become operational.
The youth islanders are equally frustrated.
Patrick Jonathan Chikoti, 32, is studying for a bachelor’s degree in business accounting at Riverton University.
Open and distant learning requires him to study and write assignment remotely on the island where he works with National Initiative for Civic Education (Nice) Trust.
The district civic education officer says the telecentre is vital because ICT services are crucial to students learning in class and by correspondence.
“Some of us, who don’t spend all the time in a classroom, largely rely on Internet research for all our academic needs. But access to Internet on Likoma Island is slow, intermittent and exorbitant. I spend K4 800 on a one-gigabyte internet bundle every three days. Now you can imagine how costly that is at the end of the month,” he says.
To Chikoti, the stalled telecentre promised easy access to online books and lectures at an affordable price.
But the excitement is disappearing as the long wait continues.
According to Macra’s Strategic Plan (2015 to 2020), the multipurpose community telecentres taking shape in constituencies will bridge the digital gap by empowering rural communities to access and utilise ICT services.
But 162 out of 193 constituencies in the country remain unreached.
When Likoma telecentre took off, only seven in 100 Malawians had access to Internet—seven times below the global penetration of 40 percent.
The project, which took off with a bang, was conceived to increase this.
Electricity and piped water at Likoma Telecentre was connected in time. Inside, the cubicles have been partitioned and furniture put in place, but the computers are few and uninstalled.
It is Macra that is delaying to dispatch the machines to the island, says Likoma Constituency Community Telecentre Project Committee secretary Davie Kacholola.
“We worked tirelessly and with speed to complete the construction. We were convinced that once this was over, Macra would send the computers, furniture and everything else. The telecentre should have been in operation by now. But up to now, we have only received 10 out of 23 computers that were shipped few weeks ago via Nkhata Bay. We are yet to get the remaining 13,” he says.
According to Macra programmes manager Ndaona Muyaya, a full consignment for Likoma telecentre was shipped to the island in February this year in readiness for installation.
“Our target is to have Internet connection installed by the third week of March this year in all the centres,” he said.
But the remaining 13 computers are nowhere to be seen and there is no sign of Internet connectivity.
The majority of Likoma residents rely on fishing. At the peak of the fishing season, absenteeism and dropout rates in school increase as some learners, having made quick money from fishing, spend their earnings on alcohol and other things.
The youth, who look up to the telecentre as a lifeline to new knowledge, are deprived of services that are improving education, farming and trade at Lupaso in Karonga, Goliati in Thyolo and other reached parts of the country.
The construction of the telecentre was seen as one of the positive developments to improve the social and economic status of the youth and the rest of the islanders cut off hit hard by transport and communication gaps.
Mataya and his peers are impatiently waiting to use the delayed facility to uplift themselves.
Says Mataya: “We are still waiting for the opening of the telecentre. We don’t want to wait in vain.” n