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.

Digital Development

If there really is development work to be done everywhere, then how best to go about it?

In my time here, I have come to believe more than ever in engineering, pure and empathetic put-me-in-your-shoes engineering, as one of the most effective strategies for realizing development. (Remember, I am thinking of development as increase in the amount of time that a person or group can foreseeably sustain their lives into the future.)

In the library the other day I came across an interview with the CEO of General Electric, Jeffery Immlet, who I find has been saying and doing very interesting things recently. In the interview Immelt says something to the effect of:


Pondering Poverty

When we were in Tanzania visiting Marissa's sister, Sami, and I stumbled across a very interesting discussion of poverty in a copy of the magazine NewAfrican January 2006 no. 447 in the article “Is Poverty African?” pg. 14:

In the article, Dr. Vandan Shiva says, “Poverty is a final state, not an initial state in the economic paradigm which destroys ecological and social systems for maintaining life, health, and sustenance of the planet and people.”

This may sound straightforward to some, but poverty is a word that I find most people use too carelessly. There are many who talk about it and even fight against it, but very few, I find, who can define it. It seems to me that dealing with social problems is just like dealing with anything else. You cannot fight against something effectively until you have defined it fully in your mind. Know your opponent.

The balance of For- and Non-profits

I am skimming a book by David Bornstien called "How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas". Somehow I have managed to get past the incredibly modest title and short introduction yet still have no idea what a Social Entrepreneur actually is... but we can come back to that
in a later blog.

The book begins with a discussion of the explosive expansion of the Non-profit (NGO) sector in recent years. Both the number of organizations and the amount of money invested in the non-profit sector have increased greatly since 1960. This "explosion" of non-profits is something that you can't ignore living in Malawi (especially when you travel to Lilongwe, the capital city) ... non-profits are everywhere. There is an acronym and organization for every type of social cause you can imagine, even the ones you could never have imagined. The only one i havent seen is an NGO to help other struggling NGOs. But i am sure its on the way.


Ungweru Community Center

I think that I have found my dream job. Directly across from Mzuzu University, down a dirt road, through a corn field you will find the Ungweru Community Center. There you will find nice 4 computers, the latest news papers, sodas and cookies for sale. Ungweru Community Center is a for-profit endeavor, started by the catholic church and the university, to offer technology classes to the public at very reasonable prices. Currently there are typing and basic computing classes (Microsoft Word and Windows XP) offered at Ungweru. I have been asked to help them begin teaching basic computer networking and internet skills... without using the internet of course!!

Our look into the Malawian Hunger Crisis

Here is our first inside look at the Malawian food crisis which so many of you back home in the USA have read about in the papers. We have found that there is much more to the “crisis” than the papers have told. This is our first attempt to explain the problem, as we see it, more fully. Its a twisted tale of economics, agriculture, taste buds, and “drought”.

Newspapers in the USA usually list drought as the culprit for hunger in Malawi. Predictably every year Malawi receives large amounts of rain during its rainy season from November to March. From April through October is the dry season. This is what newspapers in the USA often refer to as the drought. Its hard to call the dry season in Malawi a drought, because it is a very predictable weather pattern that happens every year in Malawi. A drought is a severe, unexpected absence of rain; Malawi's dry season is neither severe nor unexpected. The dry season happens every year. Currently in Malawi we are in the rainy season, everything is green and tropical. The forests look like the forests of Brazil. During the dry season, Malawi makes a transformation from a tropical paradise to an arid climate which feels and looks much like the plains of Colorado or the mountains of northern Arizona. Its dry, but like Arizona, a fairly green and lush – capable of sustaining indigenous plants adapted to local weather patterns. So if you hear about drought in Malawi, chances are you are really just hearing about our dry season, something that all of us living in Malawi know will come every year. We are convinced that there really is no drought in Malawi. There is only a dry season.


Tour of Opportunity International Bank of Malawi

Today, Marissa and I toured a successful microfinance bank, called Opportunity International Bank of Malawi (OIBM). The bank is quickly gaining international attention. For those wondering, microfinance is an effort to provide traditional banking services like loans and savings accounts to the poorer sectors of the population. These sectors of the population are generally excluded from financial services because most commercial banks believe that it is not profitable to serve them. From what I understand, OIBM differs from most commercial banks, not in the way it is run, but in the people that it seeks to serve as clients.

Fulbright Research Proposal

Here is a shortened copy of the proposal I wrote for the Fulbright grant. It describes the project I will be working on while in Malawi

Overcoming the lack of access to appropriately implemented technologies in the developing world is fundamental to the problem of realizing social development. By increasing productivity and diversifying the workforce, the proper use of technology lays a vital foundation for public health, democracy and economic development. This is certainly true for the proliferation of information and communication technology (ICT). Studies by the Digital Opportunity Task Force, the United Nations Development Program, the World Bank's Information Development Fund and Harvard eReadiness Project all prove that the expansion of ICT connectivity can augment social development. Building community telecenters, enhancing rural commerce via ICT-based microcredit lending, launching web-based e-commerce, using the internet to teach public health and land management in rural areas, and using email to relay commodity prices: these are among the many ICT strategies that can enable faster progress. Increasing access to technology and crossing the digital divide is not an option; it is an absolute necessity if the poorest nations are not to fall even farther behind.