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The End of the Beginning—What I Talk About When I Talk About Malawi

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  This article is part of the series: Digital Malawi: Developing Hope in the Information Age Becoming a Canadian

"How's Africa?"—my friends outside of the continent frequently ask.

Where should I start...?

Malawi—the 10th poorest country in the world1, with a life expectancy of around 60 years2, less than 30% internet penetration, a median age under 18, and more than 80% of the population living in rural areas3. It's a country far from discussions about race and ethnic diversity and predominantly uses underrepresented languages. This is the "Africa" I have lived in for the past 11 months as a Canadian international volunteer, and now I'm about to end my one-year assignment. Unsurprisingly, there are many immediate struggles you wouldn't experience in wealthier nations. But life here is actually not *that* bad and can even be happier than in more developed countries.

Let me be honest. I am exhausted, both mentally and physically. I don't know if it's due to the side effects of malaria prevention medicine, the full-time onsite work in a dark and noisy office space, the general safety concerns that hinder me from going out as frequently as I used to, or the people who stare at me whenever I'm outside. In any case, I've been struggling with fatigue and a sense of insecurity throughout the year. My body feels shockingly heavy (without any visible weight gain), and I cannot focus on anything, even when I need to. In a short period, I've completely lost stability in many aspects of my life, including mindfulness, fitness, finances, and intelligence. Despite this, the handful of valuable things I've received—such as connection, laughter, and joy—make me feel like these costs are worth paying. I have no issue with living in this country longer if necessary.

mzuzu * A view from my house in Mzuzu, the third most populous city in Malawi. I was fortunate enough to live in a relatively quiet, walkable, and evergreen area with a comfortable climate.

So, what's next?

I pause for a second.

Education, economy and business, digital transformation—numerous activities happening in the country do not seem meaningful to me, even with all the "success stories" and improving trends in various statistics. This may be due to the difference in cadence between the rapid technological evolutions in my profession and the nature of capacity-strengthening international development work. The former progresses at an astronomical pace and instills a continuous sense of urgency, whereas the latter takes time and requires a greater level of coordination before deployment. I want to be agile, but changes, even subtle ones, to vulnerable people can be irreversible. This unique challenge currently motivates me to pursue a career in international development. I want to believe that we have a better way of sustaining and contextualizing our development efforts. But how?

Another volunteer opportunity, maybe?

No, thanks.

The Bitter Reality of International Development and Cooperation

Volunteering is fundamentally "giving without expecting anything in return," but when you give knowledge and skills you are an expert in and used to be rewarded for, like ICT skills in my case, it's hard not to expect tangible results. In my opinion, "volunteering like a pro" requires an exceptional degree of mutual accountability between givers and receivers. However, in practice, hosts tend to underutilize volunteers because they are not paying for their services and hence wouldn't lose anything regardless of how well or poorly the volunteers perform. For volunteers, on the other hand, there is no performance review, so there's little incentive to do their best unless host communities proactively demand their capacity.

Ultimately, the issue seems to be the lack of a mutual accountability mechanism among the parties, making it feel like people are carrying out development initiatives just for the sake of working on development. I'm here. I see issues. I have ideas. But I'm not sure if locals really want me to address them. My consultancy and product management experience taught me that clients often don't know what they want, so it's my job to surface the points and logically convince them. Yet, my Canadian identity reminds me of the potential negative consequences when I (an outsider) speak too loudly. So, I'd rather stay reactive and work minimally. I think I eventually did only 30% of what I could have done.

Under these circumstances, I find it extremely difficult to get a sense of meaning and progress in my work. And it seems I'm not alone in this; a senior development worker once gave me some advice: "We should slow down and relax. Let's set expectations to half of what you used to do in Canada." Although this advice relieved my frustrations, it made me realize that volunteering beyond simple tasks like pulling weeds, donating blood, and marshaling outdoor sports—anything I can't serve under anonymity—is not for me in the long run. This realization encourages me to revisit Marcel Mauss's framework highlighted in The Gift. If reciprocity and anonymity are foundational requirements for gift-giving practices, I must consider it a "service" as soon as my specialty and identity become central to the activities.

How about a career at an international organization?


Prestigious organizations like the United Nations, foreign agencies, and NPOs are regularly involved in development work. After experiencing how challenging global development is, I have great respect for the strategic contributions these organizations make, and I genuinely believe that our world is improving largely due to their collective efforts. It makes sense that working for these organizations can be a "dream job" for many people, as they likely have a greater influence on the immediate issues countries and their populations face. However, it's important to recognize that the implementation of critical initiatives often lies in the hands of local organizations and governments. Direct engagement with the "people" we discuss, which I personally value the most, normally happens outside the funder or donor's sight, and there are many things that data and beautifully packaged stories do not reveal. More importantly, real challenges usually arise after internationally funded multi-year projects are completed. Therefore, I prefer to maintain some distance from these powers and work from the ground up in the field.

Fieldwork, you mean...academia?

Possibly. That was actually my first choice until very recently.

The Role of Entrepreneurship in Digital Development

Entrepreneurship is a worn-out word in the Silicon Valley-led tech startup movement, and today, being an entrepreneur could mean little more than "doing business." But in the African development context in the digital age, it's still worth examining the concept of entrepreneurship and its downstream impacts on people's mindset, community, and ecosystem. Importantly, domestic, regional, and continental economies in entrepreneurial developing societies could unlock more opportunities for urbanization and growth. That is, combined with the borderless, universal nature of the internet and information systems, entrepreneurship in Africa has the potential to disrupt the landscape of the economic geography of the world.

To be more precise, ICT makes business activities more open and transparent, unlocks greater opportunities for entrepreneurs and early-phase startups, and "contributes to enhancing competition, essentially because of falling cost/traffic per minute and positive externalities owing to network avenues," according to Openness, ICT and entrepreneurship in sub-Saharan Africa. This means a lot for the second most populous continent4, with the second smallest GDP after Oceania5. The challenge, however, is in the stagnated ICT penetration; despite the huge potential of digital entrepreneurship, many African firms have yet to adapt their day-to-day operations to technologies in a productive and sustainable way.

Such discussions have been around for a decade, and the most recent report from the World Bank and International Finance Corporation, entitled Digital Opportunities in African Businesses, claimed similar opportunities and challenges. The report demonstrates the state of "incomplete digitalization" in African businesses, covering not only big countries but also some minor ones, including Malawi. The key issues are in last-/middle-mile connectivity to the internet, firms' use of digital tools for mission-critical productive work, the cost of digital tools and infrastructure, and lack of access to finances.

The immaturity of the African ICT infrastructure summarizes my year-long observations in Malawi. The country's vice president, Dr. Saulos Klaus Chilima, who died in a tragic plane crash this month6, echoed this point in a 2016 interview with the African Capacity Building Foundation (ACBF). He stated, "African governments must show a commitment to the ICT policies and strategies so that broadband becomes affordable, easily accessible, and user-friendly to the majority." He identified the main obstacles to ICT development on the continent as people, investment, national policies, and infrastructure, while highlighting essential issues such as low ICT literacy, a shortage of experts, excessive dependency on donors, lack of guiding mechanisms like tax incentives, and the unique challenges posed by the rural-centered, landlocked landscape.

There are many interesting research themes in this domain, and I once thought engaging in international development from academia could be essential to figuring out the underlying mechanisms our world relies on. However, the "so, what?" part (i.e., call for action) is often missing in the structured publications I've read, in terms of financing, investment, and policymaking. Moreover, I feel the studies tend to overlook a critical component of digitalization—people. In 2015, internet geographer Mark Graham and co-authors coined the idea of information geographies, and they began the narrative as "(Information) is from somewhere; about somewhere; it evolves and is transformed somewhere; it is mediated by networks, infrastructures, and technologies: all of which exist in physical, material places"; digital technologies, the internet, and information flowing in the world are tangible entities entangled with the real world. How can we talk about its geography without understanding people?

It seems that's exactly what economic geographer David Harvey was worried about throughout his work collected in The Ways of the World. Technology makes spatial barriers less important, but it ironically reinforces "the sensitivity of capital to the variation of place within space" and "the incentive for places to be differentiated in ways attractive to capital." Consequently, Western organizations like the World Bank "plainly favour speculative capital and not people."

Locality matters. Without addressing people, digitalization in businesses simply amplifies existing power dynamics. And that's where we find the ethics in technology.

In the highly unified global space, let me observe the people in environments where capital does not organically flow. The question now is how we can link economic implications to these human factors. This is the area that Dr. Chilima referred to as "indigenous ICT capacity building." As a knowledge management expert, he believed in the power of human capital and considered the management of their knowledge a competitive weapon. "Skilled people are the single biggest competitive advantage in an organization and, so obviously, in a country. Countries need to build capacities in their human capital, retain, and use them," he stressed.

Playbook for Sustainable Capitalism

Investment can be a good measure of how nations build, retain, and utilize capacities in a capitalist society.

2023 Venture Capital Activity in Africa revealed that major startup investments in Africa have been made for businesses with headquarters outside of the continent or operating in multiple countries, including big ones like Egypt, South Africa, Kenya, and Nigeria. As the research showed, capital flows to where incentives exist. Here in Malawi, conversely, the only domestic player mentioned in the report is a smart finance and solar technology company called Yellow, which also has a major presence outside the country.

Challenges under greater fragmentation and insecurity are evident in the voice of Joel, who hosts a Malawian engineering community #TechMalawi.

Although there is funding, incubation, training/mentorship, and pitch competitions in Malawi, the issue I see is in the lack of context adaptation and long-term business sustainability. The current programs are usually funded and designed by international non-profit organizations, which often do not invest in these matters and care primarily about impact metrics like "how many people reached."

To attract more serious investments beyond these impact investors, an immediate question for Malawian businesses is how to design a sound exit strategy. Without a domestic stock exchange, a realistic path would be acquisition or merger, but Malawian small- and medium-sized enterprises would have a hard time attracting big corporations considering the country's stagnated economy, low consumption power, and wishful yet reactive attitude among people and businesses. Paying off investments through the natural growth of a business may or may not work for the same reasons.

Even with serious funding, Malawian organizations generally struggle with prioritizing issues and using money effectively and scalably, as far as I have observed. This can also be a big area where we need "support" as Joel mentioned in the video. In particular, this nation probably needs more coaches than tutors and mentors.

Tutoring is an activity that transmits specific knowledge and skills to individuals so they can better accomplish a certain task, whereas mentoring requires a mentor, as a role model, to empathize with mentees and guide them to middle- or long-term professional growth in a structured, mutually accountable manner. In the development context, I saw quite a few tutoring-like activities, though they often rely on a cookie-cutter approach by nature. Meanwhile, there are a good number of domestic role models who can motivate and inspire their followers through mentorship, but the impact of mentorship rarely goes beyond emotional empowerment driven by modular-made narratives.

On the contrary, coaching is a true form of personalization. By listening to a subject, asking thought-provoking questions, and establishing a deep relationship with trust and respect (i.e., partnership), as depicted in the Netflix series The Playbook: A Coach's Rules for Life, coaching can make a significant difference. That's what I hypothesize the low-income country needs in addition to serious investment. This context-aware business and professional development—sustainable capitalism—is a direction I'd explore if I continuously work in Malawi with its people.

At the end of the day, I'm simply curious about the future of this small landlocked country and how far it can go. In the ACBF interview, Dr. Chilima stated that "there are attributes, skills, and behaviors that I believe the youth should look at: prayers, education, priorities, commitment, focus, dedication, personal responsibility, constructive risk-taking, sensitivity to others, and learning from other peoples' mistakes." However, except for the first one—prayers—these qualities seem to be absent and yet to be cultivated among Malawian individuals and businesses. For now, the abundance of challenges and opportunities does not allow me to leave the country without promising to return.

1. Source: Poorest Countries in the World 2024 - World Population Review, relying on World Bank's data on Purchasing Power Parity (PPP).
2. Source: World Health Organization. Even with the upward trend, I feel the chance of death is high due to the incomplete medical infrastructure (e.g., many people don't have access to ambulance or emergency medical services, lack of affordable treatment facilities) and imbalanced diet (i.e., lack of lean protein and vegetables, high in fat, carbohydrates, salt, and sugar; it shows that high-calorie density products are generally cheaper and more economical for low-income populations).
3. Source: Digital 2024: Malawi - DataReportal.
4. Source: Population by Continent 2024 - World Population Review.
5. Source: World Economic Outlook (April 2024) - IMF.
6. On June 11, 2024, the government has announced that the wreckage of the plane, which carried the Vice President and nine other Malawians, has been found with no survivors.
  This article is part of the series: Digital Malawi: Developing Hope in the Information Age Becoming a Canadian



Life & Work Business

  See also

Is Computer Education Always Good?
Definition, Role, and Current Status of Digital Literacy in Malawi #LiteracyDay
Starting Field Study on How Information Flows in Malawi


Last updated: 2024-06-24

  Author: Takuya Kitazawa

Takuya Kitazawa is a freelance software developer, previously working at a Big Tech and Silicon Valley-based start-up company where he wore multiple hats as a full-stack software developer, machine learning engineer, data scientist, and product manager. At the intersection of technological and social aspects of data-driven applications, he is passionate about promoting the ethical use of information technologies through his mentoring, business consultation, and public engagement activities. See CV for more information, or contact at [email protected].

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