Tracking Malawi's free Wi-Fi experience

Malawi free wi-fi

It is a hot afternoon in Blantyre and an Irish potato seller is sweating profusely from the heat but is somehow content with business because he has just found a new way of selling his products- the Internet using free WI-FI.

Steve Dick, 23, of Chilomoni township in the city, is a slightly taller young man with ambition but could not continue with his education due to luck of funds. He did find a way out, by joining the family business.

Now with the coming in of free Wi-Fi at Blantyre market, a world of choices and limitless opportunities for the business have opened up for Dick.

He tells “We spend all day waiting and fighting for customers who come into the market but now I can post on my WhatsApp status with prices and get responses from potential clients. I have people who order and we deliver around town for a fee.

​​​​"We have also had occasions where some restaurants have asked us to make deliveries. This is good because we no longer just wait for people to come into the market.”

Steve Dick
Dick: Life does not always have to be hard

Dick explained the diversification is helping them not only deal away with competition within the market but now they are also able to think of growth.

“There are a lot of advantages with this free Wi-Fi, we are connected and do not have to spend like we used to buy bundles.  We used to spend a lot but now we are relieved, we only use bought bundles at home in our locations."

He went on to say: "During our down time we can chat with friends and family, watch videos. Life does not always have to be hard". 

Apart from the business person in the market, Dick says, "there are others like students from the Polytechnic who visit the market to downloads books and other material they need. You can see this not only helping us in the market,” he adds.

Speaking on the operations, Dick said sometimes the Internet has glitches but most often they have no complaints rating it 8 out of 10.

The Wi-Fi facility in the market is an innovation by government being implemented by Public Private Partnership with credit facility from the World Bank.

Users are given 500 megabytes for a day after logging in and according to Dick, others finish their allocations where as others don't.

"I use everything, WhatsApp, Twitter, Chrome basically everything that I access just like when I buy a bundle.”

His call is for the free Wi-Fi facility to be extended as it does not cover the whole market with other places having less coverage or none at all as one goes deep into the market.

He is also of the view that the Wi-Fi facility should also be extended to  locations, neighbourhoods because if people save money on the Internet, they can put their money into business and other ventures to enrich their lives.

​​​​​​The Wi-Fi facility is not only in markets but also in libraries, schools, hospitals and airports with the aim of increasing access.

Blantyre Secondary School is one of those institutions being covered and for headmistress Madam Gauya the Wi-Fi facility is essential as she has 598 students against 36 teachers exerting pressure on resources.

"It has so many benefits both to the teachers and the students; opportunities for teachers to go online, you cannot run away from the Internet. Prescribed books are just a starting point, if one is to be fully equipped. Computer programming lessons, updates are the way to go and the Internet is handy.

A demonstration of how Rachel works
A demonstration of how RACHEL works

"For the students, they can now continue learning through online research, getting new information to what they learn in class means this generation of students will be different than those who left.”

One tools which the teachers and students use for their learning is RACHEL (Remote Area Community Hotspot for Education and Learning), a portable, battery-powered, device that contains copies of educational websites in offline format. 

Minister inspects usage of visually impaired student using Ipad and braille machine
A visually impaired student at BSS shows how he uses the Internet

She explains the other advantage is it is user-friendly for those with physical challenges, visual and hearing impairments.

Samuel Kamwendo, a Form IV student, lauds the Wi-Fi facility saying there are some books he can no find in the library but he is about to use RACHEL, to browse.

“There are a lot of resources. This is helpful, as they are improving it, it will meet my needs and I see my future getting brighter and brighter.”

Form IV student Kamwendo says his future now looks bright 

But the students also bemoaned pupil-computer ratio saying the school has 500 plus against just over 30 computers. “Some computers are not even working, some can not access RACHEL so accessibility is a challenge.”

Internet access in Malawi is very low at just over 13 percent and compares poorly against neighbouring countries such as Mozambique and Zambia. 

In a 2019 article, University of Malawi lecturer and digital rights activitst Jimmy Kainja observed that: "The Internet in Malawi is priced beyond the reach of the majority of Malawians. The portion of the Malawian public that has access to the Internet often experience poor quality connections, that is Internet connections that are unreliable, sluggish, and sporadic. Implementing the provisions of the Universal Service Fund would be a practical and good start in ensuring accessible Internet in the country.

He proposes that: "There is also a need to draft and introduce a legal and policy framework, which clearly recognises that the Internet is not a luxury but a necessity and emphasises the government’s duty to ensure that its citizens have affordable access to it."