Although access to the internet in Malawi is the cheapest in Africa, many still can’t afford data plans. That’s why the government is now rolling out a program to provide free internet in all public facilities.
In Blantyre City, southern Malawi, the lack of unviersal internet access created long-standing issues that could be felt everywhere, including in schools: Accessing teaching and learning materials used to be a major a struggle for learners at public schools.
But that is changing, as Malawian authorities decided to launch a free internet project three months ago, whereby public facilities like schools are now able to connect online for free, facilitating learning for students at no cost to them. Online access is no longer a luxury.
“In the past, it was hard because most of the time it was difficult to [access the] internet at this school,” a student at the Chichiri secondary school told DW. “But right now, we can get information through [the] internet.”
Another student said that having free internet has improved their understanding of lessons: “There are times [when] a teacher … might not be able to explain something clear enough, and then we go on the internet and we search those things, and get wider and clearer information on that topic.”
Quality public service
At public health facilities like the Queen Elizabeth Central, a major referral hospital in Malawi, healthcare professionals are also grateful to finally have free access to the internet. They say that, for example, they can now seek clarity from medical specialists abroad on how to administer new drugs and vaccines.
Mercy Banda, a nurse and midwife at the hospital, has told DW that having acces to the internet has
“It’s free and it is easy to contact specialists and in addition to that, we are also able to download medical journals for our own use,” Banda said.
Malawian officials say that so far, at least 500 public facilities are taking part in the government initiative to connect schools, courts, police stations, prisons, hospitals, markets and other public facilities and institutions to the internet, typically using Wi-Fi.
The Digital Malawi Programme, which is being implemented in cooperation with the World Bank, is intended to propel digital transformation throughout the country, according to the government.
Making data affordable
Ensuring that users pay very little or nothing for this new service meanwhile is key to its success:
About 75% of Malawians did not use the internet at the start of 2023, Malawi’s 2023 digital report revealed; but the governments hopes that this number will drastically reduce now and empower everyday people.
With hundreds of public facilities already connected to free internet access, the Malawian government now wants to expand the program into its next phase and lobby for further reductions in data charges by mobile phone companies in the country.
Malawi is already part of the Diplomatic Data Corridors project with neighbors Zambia, Mozambique, Tanzania and Namibia, which is aimed at making access to the internet cheaper for all. But still, many cannot afford going online at all, even despite the fact that Malawi is the cheapest African country for data, according to a report by Cable, a global broadband rating agency.
In 2023, it cost Malawians only $0.38 (€ 0.35) to secure 1GB of data. Similar deals are available in Nigeria and Ghana (for $0.40), however, the average GDP per capita is more than three times that of Malawi’s in both nations.
Furthermore, many are also left behind due to a lack of access to hardware such as smartphones, laptops and computers. And there’s no government initiative to remedy that.
Edited by Sertan Sanderson