I had the great privilege of visiting the Center for Youth Development (CYD), a community network operating in Mzuzu, the third largest city in Malawi. CYD is part of a group of community networks being supported by APC, having joined the LocNet project in 2019. Even though they do not yet have an established community network, the organization is in the process of initiating one in partnership with the Internet Society (ISOC).
CYD has been providing computers to schools and making local educational content available to its partner schools through an intranet. They are working in partnership with the Turic trust from the Scottish government to provide the computers, and APC who have helped to boost the intranet infrastructure, facilitate training of teachers on local content creation, and in advocating for a license for community networks.
Policy and Regulatory Framework
Malawi does not yet have a policy and regulatory framework for community networks. CYD in partnership with Mzuzu University has had several advocacy deliberations with the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA), in a project co-funded by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) under their Connecting the Unconnected initiative, World Association of Christian Communications, and with the support of Bread for the World-Germany. CYD in collaboration with Mzuzu and APC IS currently drafting a position paper for presentation to the regulator.
According to the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSMA) Mobile Connectivity Index , which measures the performance of 170 countries against the key enablers of mobile internet adoption, Malawi has an average index score of 27.2%. The country has one of the lowest mobile uptakes, owing to the 17.5 tax on mobile phone sales introduced in 2015, and low internet connectivity rates in the world, owing to high taxes imposed on ICT services, spectrum fees and annual license fees paid by operators. In Malawi, only 13.1% of Malawi’s population of 17.1 million have access to the Internet, one of the lowest in the world, according to the latest data from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). The low internet penetration, especially to rural areas is mainly affected by not only socio-economic factors and underdeveloped telecoms infrastructure but hugely by policy and regulatory gaps which has led to the high cost of bandwidth.
Despite having the national fiber backbone connecting 28 districts in the country and an additional 29 cities in the second phase of the project that started in June 2021, capacity remains low and as a result, the wholesale price for bandwidth is high. Malawi currently has two giant telecommunications operators Airtel Malawi Limited and Telekom Networks Malawi Limited (TNM) and several small operators like Converged Technology Networks, Bengol_net_limited, SKYBAND, Simbanet-malawi, and Globe Internet Limited, amongst others.
Since 2019, CYD has received support from APC in implementing the following projects:
- Community Network Learning grant, aimed at strengthening the community networks movement through peer learning and capacity building, which facilitated their peer travel to BOSCO & Zenzeleni, peer-to-peer engagements, participation in Community Networks Summit, Making Feminist Internet conference in South Africa, and organizing a Community Networks Multistakeholder workshop that brought together 45 participants. The fund also enabled them to collaborate with the Policy and regulation team to create a policy and regulation profile for Malawi by participating in two Policy 101 briefing sessions organized by the APC policy team.
- Community Network Peer Grant, aimed at training on Community Networks, covering technical components, sustainability, and community network needs assessment to determine the demand and user wants and needs. Through this fund, CYD was also able to do a technical network site survey to support the design of the community network, hold stakeholder engagement to raise awareness of community networks and seek approval at the community level from community stakeholders including local leadership, school management committees, parent Teacher associations and other community members. Most notable under this grant was the implementation of the wider area intranet in 3 schools of Mary Mount, Multi Career and St.Peters secondary schools.
- CN Institutional Strengthening Grant which led to the development of the UmozaNet Fact sheet, UmozaNet profile, UmozaNet Canvas Social Business Model and an Institutional Development plan.
- Building a resilient Umoza Community Network grant which facilitated the setting up of a Content Development studio to facilitate the creation of interactive educational content for delivery to schools, upgrading of the network and content servers for smooth management, expansion of infrastructure to 5 additional schools, capacity building of the UmozaNet team including training of women in digital literacy and feminist principles of the internet as well as the formation of a community of practice for the promotion of women. This grant also facilitated the development of internal policies and procedures for UmozaNet focusing on Gender/Diversity, Anti-harassment, anti-corruption and procurement, finance, Risk, safety and security, Travel policy, and Increased visibility of the UmozaNet by creating promotional content in the form of images, videos and graphics and setting up relevant social media pages.
- Catalysing Better Policy, Regulatory and Financing Framework for Community Networks in Malawi grant, aimed at advocacy and building the Community Networks movement in Malawi, conducting desk Research, organizing and training a virtual symposium on policy and regulation, access to backhaul, spectrum, as well as advocacy on designating Community Networks as a Universal Service Fund area targeting the Universal Service Funds Committee.
The lack of a policy and regulatory framework to govern the setting up and operation of community networks is a huge hindrance to initiating such a model in Mzuzu. There are discussions to have a license for community broadband operators but there is hesitation that it will not differentiate between community networks and small-scale internet service providers.
High cost of bandwidth. Despite the engagements between MACRA and telecommunications operators in April 2021 which led to a reduction in the cost of internet by between 10% and 31% for 1GB TO 4GB bundles, the cost of internet in Malawi is still high, costing an average of 50 USD for uncapped monthly data in Malawi, which is double the cost in Kenya.
Rugged terrain makes it difficult for the CYD main tower to access antennas from the schools making it hard to transmit and sync content from their servers to the schools.
Electricity outages (blackouts) happen daily making it difficult for the schools to schedule ICT lessons and the server unavailable when there is load shedding at the server location.
The inability of most schools to pay maintenance fees. Schools are usually required to pay a maintenance fee of 300 USD per year for maintenance of the computers.
This is a series of our publications on Community Networks.
Ms. Catherine Kyalo is the KICTANet Africa Regional Coordinator for Community Networks under the APC-LOCNET initiative. She is passionate about community welfare and enjoys yoga to rejuvenate. LinkedIn | Twitter