Case Study: Overcoming the Digital Divide in Malawi

Our last week in Malawi, and there is one final success story to report! It seems the internet connectivity will be coming this year to the development offices of the CCAP church (Church of Central Africa Presbyterian) in Ekwendeni (just 15km north of Mzuzu). I am very excited. Some of the most effective aide offices in all of Malawi are based in Ekwendeni and run by the CCAP church there. Decent internet connectivity is only going to increase the productivity of people who are already doing some of the most effective development work in Malawi: fighting the spread of AIDS, opening clean water sources, treating sickness, and creating education and job opportunities for Malawians.

The manner in which the offices and organizations of Ekwendeni were able to "bridge the Digtial Divide" and obtain internet connectivity is fascinating and, I think, useful for others in remote parts of the world who are interested in connecting. There are three steps to achieving connectivity off the main communications grid:

Resource Pooling
Often connectivity options are only accessible if a number of people and organizations pool their financial resources together. In the case of Ekwendeni in Malawi, the CCAP church offices there were each asked how much per month they could contribute to internet connectivity per month and front for installation costs at their office.

Once the budget was finalized various ISPs in the capital city Lilongwe were approached with the budgets and asked to submit competitive proposals for providing as much bandwidth as possible given the budget constraints of the CCAP offices. Also companies were asked to provide plans for sharing the connection among the various offices once internet connectivity had been establish successfully to a single point on the CCAP campus.

Within one month 4 companies had responded. One said that they could not offer anything for the budget that CCAP had provided. Three others returned with proposals for various different connectivity options.

By pooling resources and approaching the ISPs directly, the offices of the CCAP retroactively created a market and brought it to the attention of ISPs that were too far away and too unaware of the connectivity needs 500km away. This approach was much more effective that their previous attempts where they had called up ISPs and simply said that they were "interested in getting an internet connection". For the ISPs in the capital city, everyone is "interested in getting a connection", the trick is identifying serious buyers who have enough resources to pay. The resource pooling strategy gave ISPs a immediate idea of the seriousness of the CCAP and brought to their attention that connecting the CCAP would be profitable endeavor.

Engineering as Development
From the standpoint of the ISPs, the proposal by CCAP came at a very fortunate time. Until very recently, the only option for connecting a site like Ekwendeni had been to license and install a dedicated VSAT satellite internet connection. It was only within the last year that some new wireless technology allowed ISPs to use existing cell phone towers to relay data back to shared VSATs in larger cities from remote areas.

These new technologies drastically lowered the price of connecting remote places like Equindeni, and made it possible for some the of ISPs to offer profitable internet service to the CCAP.

Macro Level Internet Policy
The national regulation of the internet in Malawi also played a huge role in the internet connectivity of CCAP in Ekwendeni. In Malawi, there are steep regulation fees that must be paid on VSAT internet connections. These fees are so steep that they effectively price a VSAT out of the budget of the CCAP. During the time when the VSAT was the only connectivity option, essentially this meant that these fines priced the whole internet out of the budget of the CCAP.

But with the new cellular rely wireless technology, that is not tightly regulated by the government, it became affordable for CCAP to connect. While these regulations are out of the power of individuals and organizations to control, individual organizations can play a role in publicizing their inefficiencies and ineffectiveness to the government and to decision makers.

It was the combination of resource pooling, engineering, policy that finally made the CCAP a true market for high speed internet connectivity. The combination of these three factors all coming together at the right time are finally what will bring reliable, powerful, capable connectivity to the office of the CCAP that were once on the wrong side of the Digital Divide.