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New telecenters and websites widen access to ICT, freer speech and untapped sectors

Interview - July 23, 2013
In a bid to ensure a diversity of views in the media, immediately after Dr. Joyce Banda became Malawi¹s President in 2012, the Government released 15 broadcasting licenses for TV and radio in order to give citizens a wide range of options to access information and promote greater freedom of speech. Moses Kunkuyu Kalongashawa, Minister of Information and Civic Education, speaks to United World about the initiatives creating a broader media in Malawi and the push to make ICT a catalyst for the nation¹s overall development.

Since you were appointed as minister, you have been working for a more open Ministry and Government for Malawians. Significant steps have already been made, such as the Access to Information Policy. Please discuss the importance of this policy to achieve a more open government and socioeconomic development in the country.

We used to have a suppressed media in Malawi. There was a very rough relationship between the Government and the media. There were laws that were passed to give powers to the Ministry of Information to stop media that were perceived to be against the Government. We had to repeal that to ensure that the media had freedom. The media has been at the forefront in terms of these laws that were a little aggressive towards the media’s activities. The Access to Information Policy is important in the sense that we cannot have the bill taken to Parliament and passed without a policy in place. It is ready, and the bill itself is ready to be presented. After that, it will be taken to Parliament for legislation. It is important, not just for the media, but for the nation as well. There are some pieces of information that citizens may need. So not having it in place is actually a breach of the Constitution that we want to follow.
There are other pieces of information that are privileged, including those concerning national security. They provide an absolute opening to access to information itself.

Please discuss the Government’s intention to relax the strict defamation law, which has hindered freedom of expression in the media.

The Malawian Government highly respects freedom of speech and expression. A number of positive strides have been taken so far. The Government is reviewing everything that hinders freedom of expression, including the protection of national emblems and symbols. These reforms take time and cost money as well. That is why we seem to be dragging a bit.

Tell us about the liberalization of broadcasting across the country as a statement of the Government’s vision to ensure diversity of views in the media.

In a bid to ensure the diversity of views in the media, the Malawian Government, under the leadership of Dr. Joyce Banda (immediately after she took power in 2012) we released 15 broadcasting licenses for TV and radio, in order to give citizens a wide range of options to access information. Some radio stations are local community stations. We do not really have a national radio station that we can positively say reaches everyone. Some of the licenses we issue are community radio licenses, which will ensure that every community has access to information. We believe that a well-informed nation is a nation that can make decisions that can make a positive contribution to development in the country. If people have information, then they will make informed decisions and contribute positively to the development of the country as well as the growth of democracy.

You also identified ICT as a catalyst for development, to promote a more informed population. Please discuss connectivity in line with the Economic Recovery Plan.

The Economic Recovery Plan (ERP) aims to put every corner of the Malawi economy back on a path of growth. ICT has been a low riser amongst the five strategic sectors, which will help our Government achieve our economic path. ICT development has a pride of place in the current strategy of the overall nation. Connectivity is a challenge not only in Malawi, but also throughout the developing world, and even in some developed countries. The Government is committed to ensuring that whenever possible, these gaps that limit broadband penetration are invested throughout the country, so that ICT services – including the Internet – can be accessed by everyone, irrespective of where they are.

We are establishing telecenters with assistance from the Government and the World Bank. The aim is to make sure that everyone, including those in rural areas, has access to ICT services, and thereby providing information to everyone. We know that there are other pieces of information, and that can be well communicated if we use visual methods. Some people do not even have TVs, but with the telecenters, people in the community will be able to go to the centers and use computers and the Internet, as well as access information that tells them what is going on in the world.

Most of the agricultural activities take place in the remotest areas, but the challenge is that we have not really done so much to commercialize agriculture. That is what the President is doing now. In a bid to achieve that, we believe that a well-informed agricultural sector and a well-informed farmer will be able to make good decisions about modern farming practices and the technologies that are being applied, and the market for the product as well. You find that many people go to the remotest areas, buy farm products really cheaply, but when farmers have access to the Internet, they will know what the market is like out there, and the prices.

We rely on extension workers to go into the rural areas and teach the farmers about farming. There are so many challenges involved in these workers going to remote areas to train the farmers, but we think these telecenters will be useful as the teaching can take place online.

What are your Ministry’s efforts in improving ICT skills in the education sector?

We work in cooperation with the Ministry of Education to ensure that we bring in Internet access to schools that are not currently connected. The Internet can be used during lessons. In the past, people were not computer literate when they reached high school. Learners can access the Internet and be computer literate, which will help them when they get jobs. IT is a crosscutting sector. We are taking this into the schools and we are connecting schools and teaching development centers in all the districts so that the learners and teachers will have basic IT knowledge.

Tell us about the success of the Malawi News Agency (MANA) and Central Office of Information (COI) websites launched last year in improving transparency and communication between the Government and the public.

Since we came in, we could not find the right way to disseminate information to the people. The Malawi News Agency (MANA) has offices in all 28 districts and is part of the Ministry of Information. The officers are employed by the Ministry. We should be covering news and events that are taking place in all the districts. When we gather this news, the only outlets we have are the two main dailies: The Daily Times and the Nation Newspaper. Most of the time, we do not have space in those two dailies. So we thought about coming up with a website so that people can upload news from their districts, so others can access the information. The website is working very well, and is providing the much-needed information.
That has also given Malawians who are living abroad the opportunity to follow developments. MANA is the most credible source of information in Malawi, so when they follow the news on that website, they know that they are not following speculations or rumors, but facts.
There is also the Government of Malawi website, which is there to provide information about what the Government is doing and its plans. That gives Malawians an opportunity both locally and internationally to see what their Government is doing and what development plans it has put into place, and where the government is putting in place the benefits that are extracted from the decisions made. This also provides Malawians with an opportunity to provide feedback and democracy.

What is Malawi doing to project a greater image abroad to attract more FDI?

The five sectors under the ERP include for instance tourism, energy and the mining sector. These three sectors are key to the development of the nation. For instance tourism, for people out there looking at Malawi, we believe that having all these websites providing information on Malawi will attract tourism and the tourism sector will help us attract investors into Malawi.
We also have to look at where we are coming from. We have been lagging behind, because people do not know what can be found in Malawi. But now people are able to follow us up. We make sure that we are able to provide the information about Malawi. We have had expositions in China, and I was in Germany recently to ensure that people know what is happening.
The President has also been very much involved in selling Malawi. She is the driver of the plan we have at the moment. She is also taking it upon herself to go around and sell Malawi.

What are the best investment opportunities in Malawi you would like to highlight to our American audience?

We do not have proper coverage in terms of communications. In some areas you do not have a proper TV signal or a telephone network. This poses a challenge to business endeavors at times. We really encourage other players to come in, especially in the telecoms sector, so we can see communications reaching the remotest areas. If you compare the rates we have in Malawi compared to those in neighboring countries, you will find that we pay quite a lot. We want others to come in and invest in the telecoms sector so that we can enhance competition, which will reduce prices (which will be good for the end user).

The U.S. has been present in Malawi since the 1960s, with the Peace Corps and through many different agencies, such as the Millennium Challenge Corporation. President Joyce Banda was in Washington recently promoting Malawi and a move from an aid to a trade-based partnership. Please discuss how Malawi and the U.S. are strengthening their relationship.

Relations have been good since Malawi gained independence and significant steps forward were made in the early 1990s following Malawi’s transition from a single to a multiparty democracy. The U.S. has a substantial foreign assistance program in Malawi, providing approximately $145 million in development assistance to Malawi in 2010’s financial year. The primary focus of this is to promote social and economic development in Malawi and decrease the country’s dependence on humanitarian assistance, and increase its ability to contribute to the global community. The U.S. Government assists in five broad areas: health, education, economic growth, democracy and governance, and humanitarian assistance through different organizations and private sector companies.

In 2012, the U.S. Government reinstated the MCC Partnership with Malawi following a number of reforms that were implemented by the Government of Malawi after the current President took office. The investment in the power sector is expected to provide close to $2 billion in net income benefits to nearly six million Malawians. We enjoy the relationship between the Government of Malawi and the U.S. Government. There are many areas where the U.S. Government works in partnership with the Government of Malawi. The U.S. exports pharmaceutical equipment to Malawi and Malawi exports tobacco to the U.S. as well. We really cherish the relationship.

Nowadays there is a lot of competition to attract FDI, and every country is fighting for a piece of the cake. Why should U.S. investors choose Malawi compared to other sub-Saharan countries?

Malawi has untapped potential for economic growth and that calls for foreign investors to choose Malawi as a destination. The international community does not just recognize Malawi as a country, but rather Malawi as a government, with the leadership we have. As we speak, the President was voted as the most influential woman in Africa and number 47 in the world. This is a cause for jubilation, and this has put Malawi as a nation on the map. We are ranking very highly, and that is a reason for someone to visit Malawi either as a tourist or otherwise.

If you look at the sectors that we are trying to promote now – mining, energy, tourism, infrastructure and agriculture – all of these are untapped. We produce lots of tobacco that the market is looking for, but we failed to supply the required amount. We produce lots of tea, and we are going to open an auction market for tea locally, and all these aspects can attract international investors.

Investors can get involved in cotton as well, and come up with different products. For the mining sector, we have lots of untapped precious minerals. We are looking at others to come in and invest in the energy sector as well, because we need energy if we are to operate mines properly. We have our beautiful Lake Malawi, the only lake with freshwater in Malawi, and this is something God-given. People out there know about Lake Malawi. People can come and invest in Malawi. We have such beautiful mountains. The Government is planning to construct a five-star hotel and people could not even imagine that it is in Malawi. We believe that these sectors will help Malawi develop.