Sunday, July 25, 2010

Malawi has an app for that: Charting a developing nation’s IT future

The dominant discourse in the study of development is about how much aid developed countries give to developing countries, and very little discussion of how much wealth goes the other way: from developing countries to developed countries. To their credit, African scholars and activists, a handful of politicians, and a few global justice activists make this point, albeit infrequently, with the consequence that considerable sections of African societies, including Malawi, have come to view their entire world from the perspective of a people forever destined to be objects of Western pity. What is perhaps not emphasized enough are the nitty gritty details of how much wealth the global South transfers to the developed global North. I have written on this topic before, more from a broader developing world perspective than from a specific Malawian context. Barcamp Malawi 2010 gave this issue a Malawian face, when Malawian Information Technology (IT) experts and their counterparts from the US, Europe and elsewhere met over the weekend of July 17th and 18th, at the Sunbird Capital Hotel, in Lilongwe.

I want to start this piece by discussing this revelation about how much wealth Malawi as a country transfers to developed countries, in the form of software license fees. However much of the article is taken up by descriptions of the issues that came up at the “unconference”, where participants suggested topics to present on, share and discuss with others as a way of offering IT solutions to problems that ordinary Malawians grapple with. The term “unconference” suggests a format in which the topics for presentation and discussion come from the participants, rather than the organizers. It was a weekend very well spent in the company of computer programmers and software engineers, even though half the time I had no clue what they were talking about when they used IT jargon to discuss technical details about computer software, Internet code language and electric voltage (caution: I have most likely misrepresented some of their discussions, due to my superficial understanding of technological sophistication). Which was itself a challenge posed to the “unconference” attendees, by a female participant who called upon fellow IT experts to go easy on the jargon and think of IT as “enabling tools”, rather than technical problems to be solved in front of a computer screen. More on this toward the end.

I left the conference on the night of Sunday July 18th feeling much better educated about the role that the IT community plays in Malawi, the paralyzing indifference they encounter from government bureaucracy, and their vision for the future of IT and its applications to Malawian contexts. I develop these points in the larger framing of this article, stressing the crucial role that Malawian IT visionaries play despite the odds they face. I also make suggestions as to how the locally-grown solutions that the Malawian IT community envisions need to be taken up especially by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MOEST). There are two reasons for zeroing in on MOEST. First, they are entrusted with the responsibility of developing educational, scientific and technological systems in the country, as their full portfolio intimates.  Second, Malawi would be taking to a higher level its aspirations for a home-grown development paradigm if Malawian schools were to embrace the innovative, can-do spirit that many Malawian IT experts have espoused.

Starving amidst plenty: free open software and license fees

At this point let me go down the list of issues that came up at Barcamp Malawi 2010, starting with the problem of money spent on software license fees. During one of the breakout sessions on the last day of the meeting one participant explained how as a nation Malawi pays billions of kwacha in annual software license fees. In one example mentioned, a key government agency (name withheld) is said to spend GB£43 million a year in software license fees. That amount translates into approximately MK10 billion every year. Worse still, there are several other Malawian government and corporate entities that are spending hard earned taxpayer money and scarce forex paying for these software license fees. To illustrate this, much of the costs for running the telecentres the government is constructing across the country are going toward software licenses for proprietary software. The most recent telecentre has been opened in Mwanza, costing MK77 million, according to a July 4th article posted on The Nation newspaper’s website. The telecommunications industry itself sends out billions of kwacha every year paying these kinds of fees to developed countries.

A number of IT specialists reported how they had on separate occasions contacted relevant authorities in government and demonstrated to them free open source software that didn’t require any license fees. In each case, the government representative approached expressed skepticism and a reluctance to even consider the idea. Two female IT specialists shared their experience of how other governments in the SADC region are not only embracing computer technology, they are even switching from proprietary software, known to be extremely expensive, to free open source software, which costs nothing. Bridget Chiwaya, an IT specialist working at the Malawi Parliament, and Madalo Khoza, who recently left her position as an IT specialist at parliament to join UNFPA, cited South African, Zambian and Zimbabwean government IT systems which were all being switched to free open source software.

Max Phiri, who runs an IT company called ITS Enterprizes, cautioned on the need to distinguish between open source software and free open source software. He said not all open source software was completely free, as some corporations that develop proprietary software were also developing open source software, and charging for it.

Interesting to note in the discussion on open source software was the knowledge that only two years ago Malawi hosted an international conference on open source software development. Organized by the ICT Association of Malawi (ICTAM), the sixth International Wide Open Access ICT conference was held in Lilongwe, November 12th to 14th in 2008.  The conference, bringing to Malawi IT experts from around the world, was supposed to be officially opened by the erstwhile cabinet minister responsible for ICT development in Malawi. The delegates sat and waited for the minister, until one of the organizers picked up the phone and called to find out where the minister was. The minister was nowhere near the conference site. The organizers requested an official from a government ministry, attending the conference as a participant, to stand in for the minister and open the conference.

An even more striking piece of evidence of government’s apathy for things IT came from another participant who reminded people how just a few years ago a Speaker of the Malawi parliament (name withheld) once threw out a member of parliament for using a laptop in the house.  The irony of how highly computerized the recently constructed parliament building is will not be lost on anyone.

Malawianizing computers and Internet content

One of the trendy topics at the meeting was that of the localization of content. Charlie Maere, Director if ICT at the University of Malawi’s Kamuzu College of Nursing, made a presentation on this topic, and several other experts demonstrated projects they were working on to make more Malawian content available on the Internet, in local languages. David Hotchkiss, from Google, Inc. pointed out that there was very little Malawian content on the web. He hoped that the conference, or unconference as it were, would discuss that problem and come up with possible solutions. 

Soyapi Mumba, one of the organizers and a leading Malawian software engineer, was of the opinion that there was a lot of Malawian content around, it just wasn’t easy to access. He gave the example of the numerous radio stations that broadcast in Malawi, whose content does not appear on the Internet. He said the challenge for Malawian IT experts was to make that content accessible, on the Internet. Even if Mumba’s observation is correct, it is still the case that the majority of the content that dominates Malawian airwaves from the more than twenty radio stations and a handful TV channels in the country is never archived on the Internet. Only a handful of Malawian newspapers and magazines put their content on the Internet, a situation that does render credence to the observation that Malawi is much underrepresented on the world wide web. Increasing Malawi’s content on the Internet would be good for not only the country’s image, it would also support our schools, teachers, researchers and policymakers in Malawi and elsewhere.

Edmond Kachale, a software developer at Baobab Health, made a presentation on natural language technologies, in which he demonstrated a Chichewa Spellchecking Plugin for Firefox. Kachale has given the plugin a technical name, ChicPOS, which stands for “Chichewa Part of Speech Tagger.” The plugin does what one sees when one misspells an English word on their computer, redlining the word to alert the user of the spelling mistake. Kachale’s plugin gives the computer a function that recognizes Chichewa words and their parts of speech. Kachale has also created a Chichewa Spellchecking Plugin for, a free open source program that works much like Microsoft word processing and graphics applications. Kachale informed that he was part of a team that created the Chichewa Google page, available at <>. He said the page was serving not only Chichewa-speaking people from Malawi, but also Chinyanja speakers in Zambia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. He provided an email address,, which people can write to for more information on the project.

More examples of localization of content came from a topic on game design. Steven Chanza demonstrated a Malawian computer game he had developed, which he said was called Thela, or Odi. In his demonstration he played against an imaginary opponent whom he named Malume. Chanza’s game has varying levels of difficulty, and tabulates summaries of scores and other data at the end of a session. In light of Chanza’s and Kachale’s work on Malawian computer content, the issue of content localization is an interesting one given the contradictions that characterize language policy and practice. Malawian education policy, drawn from cognitive research and expert opinion requires Malawian children to be taught in a language they speak at home. Yet the majority of private schools, where most Malawian elites and non-elites who can afford it send their children, do not allow any Malawian languages. I have recently learned of a few exceptions, Malawian private schools that offer local languages on their curriculum. A recent UNESCO report points out how Africa is the only continent on the planet where the majority of children start school in a foreign language. The consequences of these policy and practice contradictions manifest themselves in the low literacy rates, political disempowerment, and reduced rates of democratic participation seen across Africa (Why and How Africa Should Invest in African Languages and Multilingual Education, UNESCO, 2010).

Role of government in ICT

Another hotly debated topic at the IT meet was the role of government in the promotion of IT in Malawi. Austin Madinga, co-owner of the private IT company Project 4 Digital Design Studio, wondered whether government should be encouraged to take a leading role in IT development, or whether it should let the private industry take the lead in the spirit of capitalist growth.  Anthony Longwe argued for the need to strengthen government’s capability in IT matters, citing the abuse that has happened with the Malawi passport and how Malawians have been punished by countries such as Britain. Boster Sibande suggested that government’s role should be creating a conducive environment for ICT to flourish.

The question of government’s greater involvement in the IT industry in Malawi raised another issue, that of the involvement of other stakeholders. One participant noted that the media seemed to be absent from the conference, as did professionals from other non-IT fields. The few government officers who attended the conference did so at their own initiative. One of the few women in attendance was Marian Mtingwi, principal systems analyst programmer in the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Culture. Another female participant came from the National Libraries Services. The participant, Chimwemwe Sumani, informed the audience about IT developments at the National Library Service, saying by 2011 the entire National Library Service system will be fully digitized in all its branches across the country.

The issue of power problems and possible solutions generated serious discussions. Austin Madinga wondered whether government could not ask huge projects that consume a lot of power to get off the grid and use alternative energies, to free up some power. Could this be a policy issue? On his part, Max Phiri stressed the need to explore alternative energies, given the abundance of solar and wind as sources of energy in every part of the country. He singled out the existence of an academic programme at Mzuzu University offering a degree in sustainable energy as of crucial importance. 

Malawian genius on display

Max Phiri later led a breakout discussion session on the problems and solutions to ICT development in Malawi. That discussion, which came up at various points in the course of the two days, revealed some quite exciting developments that are already occurring on that front. Alex Gondwe, deputy country director for Baobab Health described how the organization has been adapting computers and converting them into low energy consuming gadgets, from 240 volts to 12 volts. These computers are being used in clinics and health centres in rural areas, where they are powered by solar and wind energy. Max Phiri’s company, ITS Enterprises, recently donated a 15-terminal computer lab to a primary school in Mchinji. The computers all use 12 volts only, making it possible for schools not connected to the ESCOM grid to still be able to use computers.

The innovation to adapt computers and make them usable in such low energy conditions is where the concept of localization squarely meets the desire to make technology locally relevant. These are computers that are transforming the medical informatics landscape in Malawi, and as has been shown by ITS Enterprises, the same IT innovations are also applicable in Malawi’s education context. For me this was the most exciting part of Barcamp Malawi, in which Malawian genius was at full display. William Kamkwamba had been expected to attend and give a talk, but he had other commitments that prevented him. I later learned on MBC TV the following Monday that Kamkwamba had just been honoured by the Malawi Institute of Engineers, for his pioneering work in locally-sourced windmill energy technology.

MBC TV also announced on the occasion that Kamkwamba would be attending the Ivy League school Dartmouth College in the United States. Kamkwamba’s memoir of how he created a windmill from junk materials in his village, co-authored with Bryan Mealer, became a best seller in the United States of America. In the book Kamkwamba and Mealer narrate the story of how William dropped out of Form One at Kachokolo Day Secondary School in Kasungu, in January of 2002. This was at the height of the 2002 famine, and his parents had failed to raise MK1,200 for his school fees. Kamkwamba, aged 14 at the time, started visiting a library at a nearby Teacher Development Centre (TDC), where he started reading a book on how to make electricity at home. It is a beautifully written, fascinating story that raises the question of the limits of the school curriculum, and the power of a determined mind. It rises to the level of a complete introduction to physics and home-made electricity. Titled The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, the book, despite its ambivalences as all books do, should be made required reading in Malawi’s teacher training colleges, secondary schools, technical and vocational colleges, and universities. It should also be read by as many Malawians as possible.

Toward the end of the two-day event more Malawian genius was on display when five teams competed in using Google App Engine to create software applications, or apps, as they have become widely known. The criteria asked for apps that were creatively designed and whose solutions targeted an important problem in Malawi. The prize was the latest Google phone, HTC Legend. That prize went to two young Malawians, Steven Chanza, aged 24, and Kondwani Hara, aged 27. Chanza and Hara created an application that they named “shareajob.” The utility for the application, they explained, is that most job postings are available only to those who can afford to buy a newspaper, or to read one in a library or view a copy bought by somebody else. Their application is meant to bring job announcements to anybody who has an Internet-enabled mobile phone. Once the app is finalized, which would be a week’s work depending on access to a computer, job advertisements will be available to anyone with a mobile phone, at no extra cost. Chanza works as a graphic designer at Anypol, an advertising agency, while Hara teaches mathematics at the University of Livingstonia.

Each one of the apps demonstrated for the contest was quite unique and exciting. Some were even funny and lighthearted. Boster Sibande, co-lead organizer of the barcamp and a top software engineer in his own right, won second prize for an app that would make it possible for Big Brother housemates to cast anonymous votes on a computer to eject other housemates. Another app developed by Sibande offers a solution to the problem of reformatting phone numbers in a mobile handset. Sibande explained that recently Malawi switched from a system of 8-digit mobile phone numbers to 11, adding 0999 or 0888 and their variations. He said for people who had hundreds of contacts in the phones, it would be a tedious process to go through each contact and reformat it to the new system. His application, known as PIM API, solves that problem by simultaneously changing all the phone numbers, automatically.

Third prize went to Austin Madinga and Lengani Kaunda, who developed an app they named “Pano”, Chichewa for “here.” Madinga’s and Kaunda’s idea is for the application to serve the social networking purpose of announcing one’s location, and also identifying particular places such as banks, petrol stations, restaurants, hospitals, etc, in a 20-kilometre radius. The two software engineers said their idea would work in a similar manner to the social networking tool known as Foursquare.

Charting the future of IT in Malawi

As Barcamp Malawi 2010 drew to a close, participants paid particular attention to what they need to do as IT experts, promoting collaboration amongst themselves and making their voice heard. They also talked of the need to involve other stakeholders and consult widely in their discussions. In the course of the today, several examples came up that highlighted issues of schooling and where IT solutions fit in. Many participants seemed eager to apply their expertise to educational issues in Malawi. One example was the one discussed in the preceding paragraphs, the donation of a computer lab that ITS Enterprise recently made to a primary school in Mchinji district.

Two aspects of the localized solutions being experimented with seemed pertinent to the one problem MOEST’s policymaking appears to be giving a lot of attention to lately. Educational thought leaders here in Malawi appear unanimous in their agreement that Malawi is not going to improve the quality of education with the current class sizes that the average Malawian teacher has to contend with. Thousands of classrooms are extremely overcrowded, and learning conditions are quite challenging. One researcher told an educational symposium recently that he could not think of another country in the world that had the class sizes and teacher pupil ratios that Malawi does. Educational researchers and policymakers point out what a miracle it is that Malawian children persist and survive the early years of schooling at all. 

The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology has recently inaugurated a teacher training system that utilizes what is known as Open and Distance Learning (ODL). More recently the Ministry has also embarked on a programme to put in place a structure for continuous professional development (CPD) as part of a broader effort to establish a progressive and rewarding teacher professional development system. Given the numbers of teachers needed to make a real difference in the problem of quality education and equitable access in Malawi, technological solutions will be indispensable. An important first step might be the consideration of establishing a MOEST directorate solely devoted to educational technology in Malawian schools and teacher training colleges. We don’t seem to have one at the moment for that specific purpose.

For IT to happen in Malawi, there will be need for a different approach, both from Malawian IT experts and other stakeholders. The Malawi Government needs to be assisted in appreciating the significance of adopting free open source software. The huge amounts of money the country spends on unnecessary software license fees could promote IT investments within Malawi, rather than enriching already rich countries. As three of the female participants quoted above insisted, Malawian IT experts need to engage the parliamentary committee under whose jurisdiction ICT matters fall, and present their vision for the country. There is a lot of awareness work to be done. As Madalo Khoza poignantly explained, Malawian IT experts need to talk about ICT not as a technical matter, but rather as “enabling tools.” The ICT Association of Malawi is gearing up for its 2010 annual meeting in the next few weeks, and that’s one place to start. 


MALA FORUM said...

This is wonderful. I was expected to attend but I failed to attend due other unforeseeable circumstances. Your comprehensive coverage of the event has given me everything I needed to know of how things went at the event. Keep it up, bro.
Some of us are involved in a lot of work to promote use of free and open source software in Southern Africa and here at home and do agree that the mind set of Malawians needs to change and must change now if Malawi is not to lag behind in adopting emerging technologies for development

Muza said...

Impressive that malawians are developing apps and hardware that is pro-malawian. In India they have developed a $35 laptop. I was at Phwezi earlier this year and was surprised that one of the top schools in malawi does not have a computer lab! both the public and private sector need to work together to promote a computer literate population.

Daniso's Warped Mind said...

Your article only serves to enhance my regret that I wasn't able to attend.

I just hope that Malawi can have mini-BarCamps rather than wait for the big one once a year.

As for journalists not attending, I'm afraid it's the allowance culture manifesting itself here. Most journalists won't attend anything unless they're promised allowances.

Anonymous said...

Conferences or whether you call tne unConferences will always be there,problems highlighted,solutions put forward,papers written and presented,fingers pointed at each other.All this does not matter,what are we doing on the ground?That is where we have to act and the time is now or never.

belle said...


Dlomen said...


Myadcorner said... is a one stop solution for your Advertisement in Newspaper related needs. Book classified text & display ad in categories like matrimonial, property, recruitment, Name chamnge & many more.

Unknown said...

Being a trade visitor you can register with the ITB networking tool (former: Business Guide) that informs your business partners about your participation in ITB Berlin.

Chetan Sharma said...

Golden peacock hotel lilongwe provides excellent room service to their customer. It is at an very affordable prices.

meldaresearch said...

The ultimate goal of engineering research writing services is to provide Engineering Assignment Writing Services and engineering coursework writing services since engineering dissertation help seekers lack time to complete their custom engineering research papers.