Think Big, Start Small: How Free WiFi in Malawi Is Changing the Game on Internet Access

Technology and digitalisation

Think Big, Start Small: How Free WiFi in Malawi Is Changing the Game on Internet Access

Commentary
Posted on: 15th November 2022
Vincent Kumwenda
Tech Policy and Delivery Advisor

To reap the benefits of the internet – from access to financial, educational and health-care services to improved job prospects and greater security – citizens need affordable and reliable connections. But levels of connectivity remain low in Africa: only 22 per cent of people on the continent have internet access. And while the continent’s E-Government Development Index (EGDI) (which assesses e-government development status) scores doubled from 0.2 in 2003 to 0.4 in 2020, this is still low compared to the world average EGDI of 0.6.

This is why the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, through the Tomorrow Partnership, has been working with the government in Malawi to improve internet access and help drive digital transformation across public services. We have already had great success: free, daily WiFi allocation has increased from 375MB to 1GB per user. How did we achieve this?

The Issue

Internet is expensive in Malawi; indeed, citizens pay some of the highest prices for telecom services in the region. This is due to poor infrastructure, limited bandwidth and lack of market competition. The government, in partnership with the World Bank, is implementing the Digital Malawi Programme to support long-term investment in the country's digital transformation. As part of this project, free WiFi has been provided for essential public services, such as schools, airports, markets and hospitals. When we completed our own assessment, however, we found that the WiFi provided was insufficient, both in speed and daily-user data allowance; 375MB is not enough for even minimal use. Frustration over internet speed and allowance resulted in a public outcry on social media and unhappy users.

Making the Case

We raised the issue of WiFi coverage and speed with the government over the course of different discussions. The main challenge was persuading the government to make considerable investments. For this we had to engage with the minister of finance and the Public Private Partnership Commission to consider a number of aspects of the Digital Malawi project including WiFi allocation. Our efforts paid off, with the WiFi hotspots increasing their daily free internet packs by 625MB. Free WiFi is now available for people to use in 32 public places — providing an average of 2,900 users daily with an opportunity to easily communicate with family and friends when they are in hospital, and access to online educational resources for students and teachers.

Over nine days, we ran digitalisation labs that led to the drafting of a national digitalisation policy, ICT standards for public services and a digitalisation roadmap.

Our work to help increase internet access is one example of how a small fix can have a big impact. Ensuring that everyone has adequate internet access should be a priority for governments to enable equal opportunities. This could start with guaranteeing free WiFi access in public places, a feat that could easily be achieved given that worldwide, more people have access to a phone than have access to a toilet. Think big, but start small.   

 

Lead Image: Getty Images

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