Malawi is collaborating with international bodies, including the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a United Nations specialised agency for information and communications technologies (ICT) to fully migrate into a digital economy. Minister of Information recently attended a conference in London, the United Kingdom, where he reported on the progress Malawi is making in the sector. Our reporter FRANK NAMANGALE caught up with MOSES KUNKUYU in this interview. Excerpts:
Q: What was the London conference all about?
A:This was a ministerial alliance for digital nations. Malawi was invited by the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation (CTO), a multi-stakeholder intergovernmental organisation with mandate to promote and foster efficient development and use of ICT for social economic development within the Commonwealth and beyond. Malawi is a full member of CTO.
Q: What is Malawi’s position on migrating into a digital economy?
A:We are in a high-tech age, an era in which technological advancement is unprecedented. Good thing is that technology is among the top priority areas of His Excellency President Lazarus Chakwera’s administration. A time of upgrade from the third to the fourth industrial revolution is here. This is an epoch in which modern technologies continue to bridge the physical and cyber worlds. As a country, Malawi has proved to be an outlier in the domain of laggards in as far as embracing a modernised approach to the management of State operations is concerned.
Q: Is Malawi any closer to becoming a digital economy?
A:Certainly yes. Malawi is fast becoming a digital economy, one characterised by the worldwide network of economic activities, commercial transactions and professional interactions that are enabled by ICT. The President, in his State of the Nation Address (Sona), reported that his administration has installed the Government Local Area Network (G-LAN) which has been connected to about 18 buildings within Capital Hill. Under the entire first phase of the Digital Malawi Programme, the government has upgraded and installed G-LAN in 24 government buildings with Lilongwe and Salima being the initial beneficiary districts. G-LAN is providing high-quality Wi-Fi access to civil servants and the general public. The first citizen also disclosed that his government has extended internet connectivity to 61 public institutions of higher learning.
Q:What has Malawi done so far to ease and fast-track the management of public data?
A: The Malawi Government has completed and commissioned the National Data Centre. This integrated infrastructure, built by Huawei, is playing a vital role in interoperability between government systems and private ones. It is hosting all government systems, the Affordable Inputs Programme (AIP) inclusive. The Chakwera administration also performed a laudable task in the last fiscal year by negotiating with mobile operators for a further reduction in the cost of Internet data to give more people access to information and other opportunities to advance their businesses. It is also anticipated that there will be a further reduction of internet costs as the government through the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (Macra) has issued licences to three more telecommunications operators. The move is likely to give rise to the much-desired competition among service providers. It is now beyond debate that Malawi is migrating into the digital economy.
Q:What was your presentation all about at the London engagement, if you had a chance to present any?
A:Yes, we had a chance to make a presentation. In my presentation, I spoke about the high cost of data because, as you know, Malawi is ranked the second most expensive data market in Africa. I also shared with my counterparts that broadband investment is concentrated in urban, yet 80 percent of Malawi’s population is rural. We have low access to energy, at 14.9 percent.
We also have low uptake of Internet-ready devices at 500 000 smart devices against 12 million SIMs. We have lack of online/digital government services and lack of meaningful local content accessible to the majority of Internet users. I also shared with colleagues that digital literacy and cyber crimes are on the rise, that is mobile money fraud targeting low-income subscribers.
Q:What other challenges did you share at this meeting that may delay Malawi from migrating into the digital economy?
A:Well, we need digital government legal and regulatory frameworks to accommodate fourth industrial revolution. The e-government department is lacking solid legal mandate. These are the processes we have to push. We also have silo digital government service delivery, for example, the National Registration Bureau, passport and Maltis [Malawi Traffic Information Systems] that are not yet interlinked.
Political drive on digital transformation is top-driven only under the current administration where digitalisation is highlighted as a driver of transformation. Adoption of national digitalisation policy and digital economy strategy delayed, and since 2013 and 2020 respectively, the country did not have operational policies.
Q:What could be another hindrance to delay Malawi from what you want to achieve?
A:Hindrances are many, but we are fighting to overcome. There is high cost of deploying digital infrastructure and lack of digital/technical skills in public service. But besides this, you want to be informed that Malawi is the third country in Africa to license SpaceX, an Internet used for backhaul capacity. I informed my colleagues at the London meeting that the Malawi Government is targeting 800 government touch points.
Q:What is Malawi looking up to from your global partners to help locals access cheaper Internet?
A:We made an appeal right at the meeting that there was a need, through Diplomatic Data Corridors, to reduce the cost of data, targeting $5.00 per MB price point. Cheaper passage of IP transit data through neighbouring countries through State-to-State negotiated terms for cheaper passage of data could be helpful. The IP transit is the exchange of Internet where one party pays another for access to a network and the networks connected to it that is considered as having the highest intrinsic value based on a combination of geographical and logical assets.
Q:Back home, what is government doing to make Internet accessible to all and advance technology?
A:We are currently reviewing public school curriculum to include digital literacy. In the near future, we will have primary and secondary school curriculum under review to include digital literacy elements. We are also working hard to roll out our community networks at district level, to have 30 new community network licensed under a cooperative model to extend broadband coverage. We are also set to review our legal framework and national digitalization policy, among other interventions..