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.

Presentation: The Status and Future of Mzuzu University Internet Connectivity

Over the past several months the ICT department of the Library has conducted an extensive analysis of Internet connectivity at Mzuzu University. Nkhaniyawo Nyirenda, of Mzuzu University, and Jon Saints, of The University of Arizona, will present the results of the analysis in order to educate and inform users of the Internet and influence future Internet policy decisions.

All members of staff and students and the general public are invited to attend.

Following the presentation there will a discussion session for members of staff
involved in ICT policy making.Presentation Discussion

Location: Mzuzu University Children’s Library
Date: November 24th 2006
Time: 1300 hours

Network Monitoring with Ubuntu

I am starting to publish the final results of my Fulbright research. Here is an article I published on the Ubuntu Linux Community wiki about creating a network monitoring server to analyze traffic on your network.

It has proven to be an essential tool for my resaerch and for improving the campus network at Mzuzu University. If you want detailed analysis of who is doing what on your computer network, this Network Monitoring Bridge is for you.

Gmail over Low Bandwidth Connections

I have noticed that the Gmail folks have made improvements to their web interface for people connecting over low bandwidth or unreliable internet connections. They now display a message that says something like: "your connection is too slow, click HERE to view your mail using standard HTML view." This is great, but sometimes still, its not enough.

Here are two tricks we use to access Gmail from Malawi:

VSAT Community Networks

I just read that the internet is growing faster in Africa than anywhere else in the world. Most of us here in Africa are connecting via satellite or VSAT connections which are a fairly expensive way to transmit data (though costs are rapidly dropping). While I am finding sufficient knowledge on how to purchase VSATs, I have found very little discussion or collaboration online concerning how best to maintain VSAT internet connections.

Just yesterday I received an email from a friend here in Malawi describing the experience of another friend who “successfully” installed a VSAT connection for their NGO. The NGO found that the the installers from the company they hired to install the VSAT “haven't got a clue [how to install a VSAT]. It took them over 10 days to get it running - basically they installed it and it didn't work and they couldn't work out why.” After asking help from a local internet cafe owner the NGO found “the VSAT company had supplied the wrong kind of network cable (not a cross over one) - a fairly basic mistake and they haven't apologised or anything - so we're not really very impressed.”

Differences between internet connectivity in Colorado and Malawi

Malawians, in general, are both very poor and very ambitious. I think this is why I am finding engineering in Malawi to be such exhilarating experience. So often here we are asked to do a lot with a little. Its forcing me to push the limits my creativity, my imagination, and my skills as an engineer.

I was in a meeting last week to discuss the redesign of the internet network architecture for Mzuzu University. There is a need to rethink how users are allowed to connect to the internet here in Mzuzu. Currently the network is designed much like the networks of the universities in the USA. In general, computers with connections allow users are to have unlimited access to the internet. A quick comparison of the internet connection here in Mzuzu to the last connection I used at my house in the USA will show why a different network architecture is necessary in Mzuzu:

One thousand roads and no highway...

Three days into our Malawi adventure and my head is full of questions. I think that I have pieced together a reasonable view of what the internet infrastructure looks like in Malawi through various meetings at the US embassy here in Lilongwe.

It seems that in Malawi, any government office, international organization or private company who wants to connect to the internet does so by buying their own VSAT satellites. Its essentially every person for themselves, as each organization takes their chunk of capital and builds their own personal pipeline.

Its as if a village of people wanted to travel to a distant city, instead of pooling resources to build a highway that would provide faster/more reliable/efficient transportation, the people each decided to carve their own individual narrow roads to the far away city. There is an unbelieved able amount of upkeep and investment costs associated with keeping these "individual roads" or fragmented internet oasises running.