* “We already knew that kids learned computer technology more easily than adults, it is as if children were waiting all these centuries for someone to invent their native language.” – Jaron Lanier
By Stephen Mmodzi & Chimpele Kelvin Tsamwa
In March 2020, the Government of Malawi announced the closure of all educational facilities to curb the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19). This forced millions of primary and secondary school children plus college students out of the classroom but innovative minds of the nation found a way out — distant learning.
Both public and private institutions tried to — albeit to different levels of success — implement distant learning programs for students across the country. Public institutions mainly used radio as the main form of tutoring while private institutions utilized digital platforms (Facebook, e-mail, internet, and WhatsApp).
Potentially these platforms are also a source of miseducation. However — if properly harnessed — they can bring reeducation, reduce the inequalities gap and potentially create new markets and jobs.
The Global Partnership for Education (GPE) complemented government’s efforts by providing resources to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) to support the Ministry of Education with education emergency response for the pandemic.
This included the development of learning materials for different radio programs. The grant also made provisions for the buying of solar-powered radios and electricity to make the learning process easier for the underprivileged.
On the other hand, most private institutions had to fend for themselves and we saw some institutions demanding that students pay full school fees (others even hiked the fees) even though students were not physically present on campus. Whether this was ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ is an article for another day.
Students had to have access to gadgets (computers/ laptops, smartphones, or tablets) and the internet or a data plan to take part in the lessons.
Mobile phone service provider, TNM stepped in to provide free access to education content online to enable students to access lessons. They assisted in making educational material available for upload via the Ministry of Education’s website, at no data cost, with the only prerequisite being a TNM number.
Fast forward to January 2021, Malawi government ordered the closure of schools once again save for those in boarding schools and those sitting for their Malawi School Certificate of Examinations (MSCE). This was in response to the exponential growth in positive COVID-19 cases as the second wave proves to be worse than the first.
We are back to where we were almost a year ago.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the above distant-learning arrangements put the most vulnerable students at a disadvantage. What can we do to make sure that some sections of society are not left behind? Not to be pessimistic but the pandemic is likely going to continue disrupting our lives for a few years to come. We need to learn to live with it.
Digital developments, if taken and adopted properly, can reduce inequalities and ensure that the state can effectively offer some services and ideas to the general public.
We need to make sure that as we adapt educational COVID-19 preventive measures, we should avoid (as much as practically possible) a situation where on one hand; some children can seamlessly continue with their lessons virtually, while on the other hand others (the majority) do not have access to education.
The above status quo continues to divide and create gaps in society on exposure and access to the right to education. We have listened to changes in mindset — this being a call on the whole African continent — from business captains, leaders, celebrities, and those wannabes and have been. However, this mindset change can only go so much if society divisions continue to grow.
The government has been proactive to increase access to ICT infrastructure through tax reduction in the equipment, however, the main consumers still bear the brunt of high data costs which denies them to enjoy the internet. Ever heard of #DataMustFall# campaign?
For Malawi to progress and attract the much-needed Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), in this present digital led economy, reversing of FDI to the north, to utilize automation, and efficiency for developing countries, the conditions need to be right so that the society that can adopt, adapt, utilize, appreciate and consume the intended FDI.
There has been an exponential growth of youth-led populations, in sub-Saharan Africa, whose needs, view of life are different from the generation Y and baby boomers.
The result is radicalism, youth-led insurrection, strife, and other social ills. What if Kamuzu Academy, the Eton of Africa, in this era of lockdowns, was to increase its reach to all eligible Malawian students through digital distant education, and using economies of scale to reduce the fee and access? We can dream, right?
What if, in the year 2022, for the first time, we have over 50,000 O-Levels or say 30,000 A levels students to come out of Malawi? We believe this is possible and if the government were to ‘subsidize’ the internet.
The #DataMustFall# initiative, and the efforts made by the Minister of Information, has shown that communication is vital for communities’ sustainability. For now, the government is facing liquidity headwinds. However, we have some levies that could be looked into and converted into the digital access levy.
For example, the Malawi Energy Regulatory Authority (MERA) has energy laws that provide for the following levies: Energy Regulation, Road, Malawi Bureau of Standards Cess, Rural Electrification, Price Stabilization Fund and Storage.
Annual fuel levy collections have been gradually increasing — from K11 billion in 2014/2015 to K20 billion in 2015/2016, and K27 Billion in 2016/2017 to K31 billion in 2017/2018 —- a growth of 182% in the past three years. Can’t we at least dip into these funds?
Take note that Agenda 2063 also touts the need for a knowledge-led society, country and continent. To achieve this in the short term, there is a need for investment in infrastructure, human capital and energy.
This is totally doable with a global reduction in the price of these, i.e. data, renewable energy, the emergence of the circular economy.
Investing in recycled solar panels, computers, and laptops (which can be distributed to eligible communities) and servers can make us leapfrog in the digital world.
At this stage, Malawi can earn much by amalgamating our educational institutions provided we are serious and we maintain and improve on the already existing portal, to continue giving online lessons to allow for people all over to learn and acquire new skills.
The big question is: will the Ministry of Education continue its digitally enhanced approach after the pandemic? It is our hope and prayer that it does. We believe that at the end of this pandemic, some nations will come out stronger while others are likely to face distress or even collapse.
With the internet, possibilities are enormous to turn around and embrace the 5th digital revolution by building smart, agile state and informed and global-ready, and digital-led state and embrace the full power of data and its attributes.
About the authors:
* Stephen Mmodzi is Lead Expert Coordinator for United Nations Least Developed Countries, Geneva and Europe Chapter, and co-founder of wergomarket.com and vendor247.shop
* Chimpele Tsamwa is the Master of Lightbulb Moments at Green Thingz and author of African Dropshipper. He writes about the economy, science, technology and innovation with a special focus on the digital economy