Author Archives: Paula Millar

About Paula Millar

Ahead of Romania’s 2009 presidential election, Paula accepted a journalism internship at one of the country’s national magazines. What began as a journalistic adventure led to a new passion for media development. Since that time Paula has served as a two-time editor at Laurier’s student newspaper – The Cord. She has also worked as Wilfrid Laurier University Students’ Union’s first Social Media Coordinator and as an intern with rabble.ca, where she produced the first online Activist Toolkit. Paula will be working as an education officer at the Malawi Institute of Journalism in Lilongwe, Malawi.

Fighting for the front page: The challenges of environmental reporting in Malawi

In Malawi, parliamentary proceedings and political scandals dominate the headlines and radio waves.  Whether it is a mere press conference or cabinet reshuffling, journalists jump at the chance to report on governmental affairs. The prevalence of political coverage, however, means that other issues are sidelined.

The country’s state of underdevelopment, coupled with intermittent electricity and water shortages, serve as a constant reminder that there is a long way to go in the creation of even the most basic infrastructure.

Undoubtedly, sustainable energy and water management are worthy topics of discussion. Furthermore, clear-cutting in Malawi’s northern region has left large tracks of land barren, and poaching has devastated animal populations in the country’s national parks and game reserves. Nevertheless, such pressing environmental issues remain largely ignored by the mainstream media.

In recent years, a multilateral effort to encourage journalists to cover environmental issues has been underway. Various organizations under the United Nations (UN) banner, including the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), are behind this push driven by global objectives – namely the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

For the past two years, MIJ FM reporter Anthony Masamba has been a regular participant in environmental reporting workshops.

Masamba explained that at these workshops, journalists are trained to understand the linkages between climate change and a range of issues, from agriculture and health, to transport. Through these sessions “journalists have been imparted with skills that allow them to write good stories from an informed perspective, as most of these journalists have not been trained to report on environmental issues,” he said. While “most of them have knowledge in journalism – they know how to write,” Masamba explained that many journalists have yet to grasp the technical languages and jargon of environment and climate change.

For this reason, the Malawi Institute of Journalism (MIJ) offers an Environmental Reporting class for certificate and diploma-level students. The course aims to equip students with knowledge on major environmental issues facing the contemporary world, as well as stimulate interest in the topic. The curriculum encompasses environmental issues, ethics, policies and legislation, as well as the idea of sustainable development.

MIJ student Patrick Botha believes that workshops and coursework are a valuable means by which to encourage journalists and journalism students to work to ensure a sustainable environment. “[Journalists] have a role to play and it is their duty to inform the masses and expose issues. There is a need to engage these journalists to create an interest in them to report on such issues,” Botha said.

Undoubtedly, journalists play a crucial role in information dissemination, knowledge acquisition and overall awareness. While media houses are a useful outlet for the promotion of sustainable development and campaigning for social change, clear challenges remain.

“Here in Malawi, if a newspaper is to sell, it must have a political story on the front page,” Masamba explained. “No one will buy a paper with a headline that reads climate change impacts development – Malawians want to read about politics. If a paper has politics on the front page, it will sell like hot cakes,” he added.

At the same time, further challenges arise as a result of the hierarchical newsroom structure. Masamba outlined a typical scenario: “I can have an idea for a story. I write my letter seeking financial support but if my request is not approved, what do I do? I just sit because I cannot support myself to go that far to do just a story.”

Botha explained that for journalists concerned with nabbing a front-page byline, there is even less motivation to report on environmental issues. With such an article, “they will probably make the third, fourth, or twentieth-something page.” According to Botha, another deterrent “is the belief that the majority of people will not bother to read [an environmental story] unless they have nothing better to do.”

Despite the workshops and other efforts, Masamba attests that the impact has not been realized due to a lack of political will. “At the moment in Malawi we do not have a climate change policy. This is a policy that would provide guidelines through which climate change issues can best be addressed or integrated into various programs,” he explained.

Masamba believes that the Malawian government’s failure to implement such a policy is unacceptable. “How do they handle climate change issues without having a climate change policy? This is a policy that would provide guidelines, but they don’t have it,” he explained. “We as journalists have our own challenges, but the government, on their part, must show political will,” Masamba said.

As for the future of environmental reporting in Malawi, Masamba has high hopes. His optimism stems from the country’s new leadership, which has already outlined a way forward. For instance, in place of the Ministry of Energy, Natural Resources and Environment the Joyce Banda administration has established the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change. “In coming up with this ministry, I think this government has shown political will towards addressing issues to do with climate change,” Masamba said.

Linking farmers to markets one SMS at a time

For smallholder farmers across Malawi, crop production is merely half of the battle. The real challenge comes postharvest, when the race begins to access markets and secure a profit before a yield spoils. With no information, determining potential points of sale, buyers and the going rate is a game of chance.

In the past, such uncertainty left smallholders in a vulnerable position. Isolated, and often desperate to make a sale, rural farmers would unknowingly agree to sell goods at rates far below the market price. Furthermore, large portions of harvests would go to waste as smallholders struggled to locate viable markets for their goods.

Malawi’s agricultural productivity has been hampered by this clear lack of transparency. The inability of farmers and traders to access information has led to inefficient supply chains and overall market inaccessibility. Beyond the obvious issue of food security, a vibrant agriculture industry is essential to furthering economic growth, expanding trade partnerships and creating income-generating opportunities in developing countries like Malawi.

Aiming to improve the productivity of Malawi’s agribusiness sector, the Market Linkages Initiative (MLI) was launched in 2009. Sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Famine Prevention Fund, MLI sought to revolutionize Malawi’s agriculture sector by establishing a broad communications network to integrate isolated, rural farmers into Malawi’s regional and national markets – thereby, strengthening food security. In light of the rapid uptake in mobile phone usage across Malawi, communication via SMS text messaging was determined to be the most efficient and cost-effective way to enable access to information.

Today, MLI’s electronic market information system platform informs approximately 4,000 Malawian smallholders of price variances and trends on a weekly basis via SMS text messaging. The platform, Esoko, sends farmers and traders price updates for particular goods – maize, groundnuts, grain, etc. – in their respective marketplace directly to their mobile device. Currently, MLI offers updates from 13 key markets spanning Malawi’s northern, central and southern regions.

When Malawian farmers travel to the marketplace today, they have “a clear location and clear price because of SMS technology,” explained MLI Bridging Activity Chief of Party Rob Turner. “The important thing is that for the first time they have information to base their decision on,” he added.

Knowledge is power and according to Turner, access to information is empowering farmers to make informed decisions on when, where, and how to sell their goods. With real-time information at their fingertips, Malawian smallholders have succeeded in bargaining with traders for better deals, increasing their profits and identifying opportunities for expansion into new markets.

While “the Ministry of Agriculture also provides price information,” USAID Senior Agricultural Technical Analyst Vincent Langdon-Morris noted, “it is often criticized for being obsolete and out of date.” Furthermore, this official government data is not distributed via SMS, or used for commercial purposes. Instead, this information is released to the media who report prices for select commodities via radio broadcast.

However, USAID Communications Specialist Oris Chimenya said that if a smallholder happened to miss a particular market price announcement, there is not a secondary avenue where that information can be retrieved. “There is no website, there is no written material, and there is no other linkage between the farmers and the Ministry of Agriculture,” Chimenya explained.

“There has been discussion, because of literacy issues, that it would be more effective to use radio or send voicemail to farmers,” Turner said. Upon further investigation, however, it was discovered that smallholders generally prefer to receive information via SMS. Essentially, the ability to save and refer back to information, as well as note trends over time, add to the inherent value of SMS technology. Overall, SMS remains the best method for cost effectively reinforcing a message in a timely manner.

According to Turner, “SMS is tailor made for a place like Malawi.” As “the value of SMS goes up the poorer the country,” Malawi’s underdeveloped infrastructure and communications networks create a better climate for SMS projects than countries like Kenya – where 3G networks rule. Interestingly, Turner also noted that rural Malawians have proven to be “willing to spend a very significant amount of their income in order to have a phone because it is so valuable to them.” As for the future of SMS technology in Malawi, Turner believes that this mentality is proof that “there is a lot of room for growth.”

Fueling up without queuing up: Thoughts on the future of social media in Malawi

After three years of living with chronic petrol shortages, most Malawians have developed strategies for fueling up without queuing up. While befriending gas attendants for information on tanker arrivals will cost you a couple hundred kwacha, those buying on the black market continue to pay nearly triple the going rate. Across the country, the prospect of spending another evening or weekend “queuing in hope” at the pumps or paying exorbitant prices for fuel remains nothing short of a “way of life”.

For Malawi’s netizens, however, the petrol crisis has inspired an online awakening. Since the start of the fuel shortage, individuals have shared tips regarding the length of queues and the locations of stations with fuel, as well as petrol tanker sightings on Facebook and Twitter – mainly via mobile technology. Online communities devoted to the communal hunt for fuel have emerged, and continue to thrive as shortages persist.

Launched in June 2011, the Malawi Fuel Watch Facebook group remains one of the most popular sources of information on petrol availability within the country. Currently powered by almost 5,000 members, the group’s newsfeed affords onlookers a steady stream of fuel accessibility updates.

Frederick Bvalani, the creator of Malawi Fuel Watch, explains that the inspiration for the Facebook group came as he was on the hunt for petrol. “I wrote on my Facebook wall asking friends where I can find fuel. Kondwanie Chirembo, a Malawian friend who is working in Botswana, suggested that we create a group that people can use to inform one another where fuel is available – thereby reducing the need for people to keep going around town depleting the little fuel that remains looking for fuel.” For Chirembo, a co-administrator of the group, the need for such a group became clear “after noticing people’s perpetual questions about where fuel could be found, or the fact that they had wasted time and fuel to go to a place only to find no fuel.”

Malawi Fuel Watch began with Bvalani and Chirembo adding a few friends to a closed group. However, the pair determined “that the success of the group resided in having more members.” After the decision was made to make the group public, “each of the members recommended the group to another friend, then the group grew by word of mouth,” Chirembo explains. According to Chirembo, the group has managed to sustain itself over time due to its diligent membership uploading accurate information.

It is only natural for Malawi Fuel Watch’s home to be on Facebook “because that’s where the conversation started and also where we interact with most of our friends,” Bvalani says. According to Bvalani, “the group feature on Facebook also made it ideal because we don’t have to do all the posting and adding of friends – members can do that themselves. We can also moderate conversations to make sure only appropriate postings remain on the group wall.” In terms of expansion, Bvalani says not to expect to see Malawi Fuel Watch tweets anytime soon as Twitter does not offer the same flexibility as Facebook.

For years, underdeveloped communications networks and infrastructure have kept Internet costs high and penetration levels low across Malawi – currently, Internet World Stats reports that they sit at 4.5 per cent. While the Malawian presence on social media channels is on the rise, Internet and social media users remain concentrated in the country’s urban centres of Blantyre, Lilongwe, Mzuzu and Zomba. Despite these statistics, Bennett Kankuzi, a Malawian computer scientist and software engineer, attests that “clear growth” is underway.

Today, Malawi’s mobile phone providers are the driving force behind the recent advancements in Internet accessibility. The rapid uptake in mobile technology use, Kankuzi explains, is propelling Internet access throughout Malawi. According to Kankuzi, the growth of mobile technology usage, coupled with the ongoing liberalization of Malawi’s telecom market, will continue to spur Internet access across the country. Furthermore, Kankuzi believes that improvements in Internet accessibility will naturally lead to greater social media use – particularly on Facebook, where, according to Socialbakers, 17 per cent of Malawi’s netizens are already active. For Kankuzi, the rapid growth in mobile technology use, and vibrancy of Malawi’s online community in the face of the petrol crisis, prove the future of social media “looks bright” in the ‘warm heart of Africa’.

Bvalani believes that “social media use in Malawi will continue to grow as more and more people find out how useful it is.” He also agrees that mobile Internet use will be one of the major reasons for its rapid growth. Another factor to consider, Bvalani offers, is that “airtime is expensive in Malawi and people are discovering that communicating on the Internet is much cheaper than SMS and phone calls.” Going forward, Chirembo adds that young Malawians will drive social media use. There are “a large group of the youth who are so eager to try out all the social media platforms,” he says.

Overall, Chirembo believes Malawi Fuel Watch is showing Malawians that despite some juvenile aspects of the Facebook platform, “one individual or a group of people can use it for something of social good.” He concludes, “I see a bright future for social media [in Malawi] as long as censorship does not creep in.”