By allowing some communities to have access to telecommunications services and leave others out Malawi government is simply promoting the inequality gap in accessing telecommunications services against Goal 16 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which tasks nations to ensure they are creating peaceful and inclusive societies, our staff writer ALBERT SHARRA writes:
Joseph Nkasa’s major strength as read from his songs is the ability to dramatise and create emotions that knock on listeners heart. He thinks and sings from the jaws of the poor.
Certainly, when he released Mose wa Lero hit in 2008/2009 in support of the late Bingu wa Mutharika’s presidential bid, those who concentrated on the ordinary part of the hit, dismissed him as a political sellout. In the song, he equates Mutharika to the Biblical Moses who took Israelites out of slavery in Egypt by calling him morden-day Moses.
Today, any cheap phone that does not support data service is a locally known by the moniker Mose wa Lero—meaning that the affordable handset is a relief to the ultra-poor as it bridges the inequality gap in access to telecommunications services.
But for people in Mujiwa Village and a larger proportion of Muloza area in Mulanje, there is still hopelessness. They have ‘Mose wa Lero’s’ but no local mobile phone network service is fully available.
Located between Africa’s third largest mountain, Mulanje Mountain in Malawi and Milanje Mountain in Mozambique, the natural demarcation created by these two physical features seems to have influenced deprivation of the community from basic public services, including local mobile phone network.
Since mobile phone rolled out in Malawi about two decades ago, the community hardly has accessible mobile network services.
In Mujiwa, Bigborn Juwawu, says his village does not access local mobile phone networks.
“Not at Mujiwa, precisely in Nanchidwa area. Some people used to say some advanced phones can pull the network, but it has never worked,” he says.
Juwawu says people walk over a kilometre to make calls from a highland or climb trees, but argues that the quality is always poor.
“There are a number of places where you can go if you want to make a call, but still, the maximum mobile phone network bars you can achieve is two. The quality of the service is poor and unreliable,” he explains.
Just about a kilometre away lives Mumderanji Joseph. She has no kind words for mobile phone service providers.
She spent a night at a nearby grave yard, about a kilometre (km) from her home, just to get mobile signals to follow up on the health of her mother, who at the time, was admitted to Mulanje Mission Hospital in the district.
“We only have access to mobile phone network from the graveyard area because it is on a highland and phones are able to pick up local phone network. So, I could not leave the place until I got an update at around 2 am,” she recalls.
But in Mulanje and many other areas across the country, grave yards are scared. There are many beliefs attached to grave yards, including being home to wild animals and spirits.
Nevertheless, in times of emergencies such as illness, security issues and disasters, the community has no option but to rush to the graveyard at night to make a phone call for help.
Residents of Nanchidwa are not alone in the predicament. Most parts of Muloza from the border in Mulanje, Muloza-Chiringa Road to Chiringa in Phalombe have no reliable local-mobile phone network, except for a few uplands.
The same is experienced in other districts such as Thyolo, Mzimba, Rumphi, Chitipa and Karonga districts. You can hardly expect the whole district to have constant network service. Even driving along the M1 Road from Blantyre to Mzuzu exposes you to mobile phone network breaks.
It now seems to be normal because of the poverty inequality gap reigning. Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (Macra) admits that there are some dark spots in Malawi that are not covered to access mobile phone service and there are reasons attached.
“It is not possible to cover every corner of Malawi with mobile phone networks because there are shadow areas that are not covered from the strategic transmission sites and also due to the remoteness of some areas,” says Clara Mwafulirwa, Macra spokesperson.
According to Mwafulirwa, the problem for people in Muloza is the location of their area. It says the community is blocked from receiving phone service by Mulanje Mountain and the only way is to plant support transmitters that can support those planted on Thyolo Mountain to serve the community.
She says economic factors matter when setting up network cover and could be the reason some areas are neglected.
“For mobile phone operators to set up network to cover such areas, it may be uneconomical considering the revenue yield,” Mwafulirwa explains.
However, this sits contrary to the global ambition of having a community moving together. By allowing some to have access to telecommunications services and leave others out simply means promoting the inequality gap.
Goal 16 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) tasks nations to ensure they are creating peaceful and inclusive societies, ensuring public access to information and protecting fundamental freedoms.
Globally, phones have become the crucial source of information and communication services. They are considered the centre for development. This is why world leaders sitting up in New York City in 2015 agreed to set up Goal 9 of the SDGs which focus on building resilient infrastructure and fostering innovations, particularly through increasing access to information and communication technology (ICT). The idea was to ensure the world lives like a global village connected by ICT and phone service is one of the facilities.
Now, telecommunication services are considered a major tool for attaining the SDGs goals. For instance, the 2017 Buenos Aires Declaration calls for promotion of universally accessible, secure and affordable telecommunications that support implementation of the SDGs.
Thus, leaving out a particular community like Mujiwa is a contradiction to global goals. Something has to be done, not on paper, but not on the ground to ensure every citizen has access to telecommunication services. This will help them to contribute to the implementation of SDGs.
During our visit to Mujiwa, we noted that the community values the power of telecommunications. Although they cannot make long calls due to poverty, most people have mobile phones. Failure by our local mobile phone operators to reach the community has only created business for Mozambique mobile phone companies.
“What could we do when local mobile phone service providers do not want to reach us?” wonders Juwawu.
In the area Movitel, a Mozambican mobile phone company is a making a killing.
“On average, I sell 1 000 airtime top up cards in a day,” says Emmanuel Thom, a vendor operating near Muloza Magistrate Court. “In a month, I sell about 30 Movitel simcards to new customers.”
While some vendors are in retail business, some buy both Movitel airtime and simcards on wholesale at Villa Town and cross Muloza River on boats and through the border posts to Malawi to sell the products to vendors in Muloza.
“Some are Movitel employees and others are Malawian vendors, but the commission is not attractive. We are just making money for them,” laments Thom.
Vendors in the area sell promotional phones from Mozambique, simcards and airtime. There are even promotional messages mounted in different parts of the community. Some vendors post the poster at their kiosks ignorantly.
“I want people to know I stock Movitel services,” says Thom, whose shop has a poster that is marketing voice and message bundles. “We are given these for free by agents who sell us Movitel products.”
Macra says by using foreign networks and phones, people in Muloza are not violating any law.
“They are just taking advantage of the spillage. Signal spillage is unavoidable, but the law requires that it should be controlled,” says Mwafulirwa.
But the agreement does not include carrying product promotions in foreign country. At the time of the interview, Macra was unaware that Movitel is promoting its products in the border districts of Malawi.
“Malawi and Mozambique signed an agreement to limit signal spillage to a distance of five km into a neighbouring country. However, network operators may be breaking the law if they are offering promotional materials in a neighbouring country, targeting customers covered by the spillage signal,” says Mwafulirwa.
Although the spillage is a relief to people in this area, the access to telecommunication service comes with penalties. They pay more than they could have if they were on local networks.
“I have four brothers and they are all in Blantyre and Lilongwe. Calling them means I have to make an international call which is expensive. We are like living in two different countries and it pains me,” says Joseph.
She says she buys 15 Mozambique metical equivalent of K150, but the call can only last less than a minute calling a Malawian line. Even those calling her from Malawi have to bear the costs of an international call.
After years of no hope, Macra believes the people in this community and other areas in a similar situation will soon sing a different song.
Mwafulirwa explains: “Macra has established a universal services fund to provide cover and offer services and it targets areas with dark spots such as Muloza.”
However, it is until this idea leaves the paper to the ground that the people in Muloza will for once feel counted and enjoy low costs in local telecommunications services. For now, the wait and desperation continues.