In Malawi, the government is rolling out a program to provide information and communication technology (ICT) services to people in rural areas by the year 2012. The effort aims to bridge what authorities call the 'digital divide' that exists between the inhabitants of rural and urban districts. Half of Malawi's 28 districts have been earmarked for the initial phase of the project. The areas selected as the first to receive Internet services include Karonga, Kasungu and Mwanza.
The government is setting up what it calls telecenters in rural areas of Malawi, where people can use telephones and computers, including the Internet. They'll be regulated by the state but managed by communities themselves so they'll be directly involved in ICT activities.
Zamdziko Mankhambo is communications manager at Malawi's official Communications Regulatory Authority. He said the telecenters will be very useful to rural people. "Through the Internet services, people will be able to get information about their businesses as well as getting education materials from the Internet," said Mankhambo. "And you know most of these people are farmers -- they will also help get information on how to improve their agriculture products. Basically they will gain easy access to communication."
He said besides Internet services, the telecenters will also provide other services, such as a photo studio, ID processing and computer lessons.
Mankhambo explained that those who use the centers will be responsible for running them. They'll form clubs that will be expected to choose areas where telecenters can be established.
There are nine Internet service providers (ISPs) currently operating in Malawi.
Patricia Kaliati, Malawi's minister of information, says the government's challenge is to convince them to serve people in isolated areas. "If they [the ISPs] are saying we are not going to be at Kamwendo because we are going to lose 50,000 kwacha ($350 U.S.), it is the deliberate policy of the government to make sure that we provide the 50,000 kwacha to the Internet service providers to make them go to Kamwendo, so that people there benefit from the ICT network," she said.
But skeptics say the project isn't of much use to rural communities, where most people can't read or write.
Charles Govati is the chairman of the ICT Association of Malawi. He said the government should have established the centers at educational institutions, not in rural villages.
"If they were going to use secondary schools or primary schools on the onset coverage, it would be much better," he said. "The core users would be there because the students would be coming in, pay a fee, do email because they have got computer classes but they don't have computers and also the surrounding communities around the secondary schools which is well [developed] would utilize the telecenters."
But Kaliati says Govati's suggestion doesn't make sense. She says most schools will soon have their own computers anyway, after a new curriculum is put in place that includes computer lessons.
Poor telecommunication infrastructure has stifled ICT growth in Malawi. In 1996, Malawi became the first country in the Southern African Development Community to remove the duty on computers. Yet the Internet is still not widespread in Malawi, largely due to the high costs involved. Studies show that Malawi remains near the bottom of the ladder in providing ICT services. This is hindering the country's economic development and ability to compete in business.
But the government is convinced that this situation will improve if the project aimed at establishing ICT services in Malawi's rural areas is a success.