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.”