Why every progressive business in Malawi needs to have an online presence

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Biz Directory MW, Malawi’s easy to use online business directory, has clocked six months since its launch. Analyzing access statistics to Biz Directory MW, which we collect through Google Analytics and other traffic anaysis engines, reveals empirical insights as to why every business in Malawi needs to have an online presence.  At Biz Directory MW, we are giving an opportunity to every business in Malawi, whether large or small, to have an online presence where they can list their products and services as well as their contact details. Biz Directory MW, has so far registered not less than 2000 businesses. The businesses listed were either self-registered or entered by Biz Directory MW staff.

In the first six months of 2015, Biz Directory MW has been having an average of 700 page views per day and 80 per cent of this traffic is coming from within Malawi. This means that a good number of Internet users in Malawi are using the Internet as their source of information for business and online business directories such as Biz Directory MW are filling an important business information gap. A further look at the sources of traffic to Biz Directory MW shows that 39% of traffic came from direct hits (i.e. traffic emanating from someone entering the website address of Biz Directory MW in their web browsers), 35% came from search engine queries entered via Google, Bing, Yahoo, Ask, etc., 14% came from referrals from other websites and 12% came from social media links such as Facebook and Twitter.  Of particular interest are the search engine queries as they underscore the fact that that a good number of Internet users in Malawi are searching for business information on the Internet and online business directories such as Biz Directory MW are filling this important business information gap.

Pie chart illustrating traffic sources to Biz Directory MW
Another interesting statistic on the traffic to Biz Directory Mw is the type of devices, site visitors are using to access the online business directory.  So far, 52% of Biz Directory MW visitors are using desktop/laptop computers, 47% use mobile phones and a paltry 1% use tablet computers. It is interesting to note that access through mobile phones is almost at par with access using desktop computers. This empirically demonstrates that quite a good number of people in Malawi are using mobile phones to access the Internet. This trend has a number of implications.

Pie chart illustrating access devices to Biz Directory MW

First, if the cost of Internet access through mobile phones can be affordable, we could see an increase in Internet usage in Malawi.  Indeed, reducing the cost of mobile Internet access is key to encouraging access to Internet in developing countries like Malawi where fixed Internet access infrastructure may be very expensive to install and maintain.

Second, if the cost of Internet enabled smart phones could go down, many in developing countries like Malawi could have an opportunity to start using the Internet. Fortunately, affordable but quality brands of smartphones like Tecno, Itel and others are helping to break down these barriers and as such, should be greatly encouraged. 

Lastly but not least, since quite a good number of Internet users in Malawi are accessing the Internet using mobile phones, owners of businesses which have websites should be making sure that their websites display correctly both on desktops, mobile phones, tablets and other access devices. Technically speaking, a website for a progressive business organization should be responsive. It is expensive to have websites specifically designed for a specific access device, hence responsive websites which display correctly across different devices are a recommended solution to the varying access device problem. In addition to this, website developers also need to avoid putting too much graphics and videos on their websites as these unnecessarily consume more bandwidth hence costing more on the part of the website visitor as ‘data bundles’ get consumed unnecessarily. Websites are software and as such, software usability guidelines need to be followed when developing them. In other words, there should be a balance between aesthetics, content and other usability factors.

As more people are turning to the Internet for business information, it is easy to see that every business that needs to widen its customer base in this digital age should have an online presence. The Internet presents a promising frontier to reach more potential customers in this digital age. Indeed, through the Internet, we can promote entrepreneurship in Malawi. However, websites being one popular medium for an online presence, should be designed with the above considerations in mind. 


10% Internet levy in Malawi - a step backward

Sunday, May 24, 2015

It never rains but pours for us, Internet users in Malawi. While grappling under one of the most expensive telecommunication tarrifs in the world, the government has decided to introduce a 10% levy on Internet, SMS and other data transfer services. In 2013, the government already introduced a 16.5% Value Added Tax (VAT) on Internet services. Apparently the Minister of Finance, in his 2015/2016 budget presentation argues that there has been a "tremendous uptake" of telecommunication services in the country hence the need to increase the tax base through this avenue to finance the zero-aid national budget from local resources. Statistics, however, show otherwise. According to a report by BuddeComm, by the end of 2014, the market penetration rates for telecom services in Malawi were 36% for mobile telephony, 1.9% for fixed telephone services and 6.1% for Internet services. It is clear that there is no tremendous uptake of telecom services in Malawi particularly for Internet services. It is thus a step backward to introduce levies that will stifle the already paltry Internet uptake in Malawi. In this post, I dwell much on how Internet access can promote trade and entrepreneurship in a country like Malawi.

Technologies like the Internet have been shown to promote trade and entrepreneurship even in developing countries as the Internet provides a platform through which manufacturers and service providers can showcase their products and services to a global audience. For example, a tourist attraction whose information has been put online is likely to attract a stream of international tourists. Companies and organizations which have an online presence clearly expose themselves to a larger market audience. This is also true for small and medium enterprises. Simply put, an online presence is a must for any progressive enterprise. Stifling Internet access through Internet levies is therefore a clear contradiction to the policy of promoting trade and entrepreneurship in the country. For further reading, a 2006 paper by Clarke & Wallsten provides insights on the linkages between trade and Internet usage.

The Internet has also provided self-employment among enterprising youths in Malawi. With the prevalent high unemployment rates in the country, some youths have taken advantage of the many opportunities provided by the Internet through businesses like website development, internet caf├ęs, computer networking, etc. With the rising costs in Internet access, many of these businesses will be less patronized hence threatening their very existence. Where is the much touted youth empowerment then?

It is also a fact that an increasing number of Malawians are looking at the Internet as a source of vital information on education, current affairs, business, etc. For example, on the online business directory we are running, Biz Directory MW, we get not less than 100 page views per day with most traffic emanating from search engines such as Google and Bing. And 80% of all search queries come from within Malawi. This empirically demonstrates that many Malawians are increasingly using the Internet as a source of non-trivial information such as business information. Again, we can see that access to the Internet is something that should be encouraged to stimulate entrepreneurship in the country.

Other countries like Rwanda have put technology at the heart of their development strategies and the results are there for all to see. Lets build a Malawi that can escape from the shackles of poverty through progressive policies. Affordable Internet access is a need and not a want.


Why Facebook's internet.org initiative is bad even for developing countries like Malawi

Friday, May 15, 2015

Facebook's Internet.org initiative claims to have the objective of bringing basic Internet to everyone in the world. Through this initiative, a few select websites chosen by Facebook and its partners can be accessed via mobile internet for 'free'. The initiative has just been implemented in Malawi in partnership with two of Malawi's mobile phone operators - TNM and Airtel Malawi. At face value, it looks like a great initiative. However, personally, I have reservations on the initiative based on the following reasons.

First, the initiative violates the principle of Internet or net neutrality. For starters, Internet neutrality is the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication (Wikipedia). The term was coined by Columbia University media law professor Tim Wu in 2003. Clearly, by selecting a few websites over others, Facebook and its partners are not treating all web content equally and therefore giving undue advantage to certain websites and services over others thus stifling innovation and competition. The Internet is what it is today because of innovation and competition. And if anything, this idea of filtering out some preferential websites and services over others is taking away the fundamental human right on the right to choose. Why should Facebook and its partners choose for 'poor' people what they can freely access?

Second, this initiative should not hoodwink the masses in developing countries like Malawi that it is a free service. In my opinion, this initiative gives Facebook and its partners undue advantage over others by cleverly putting themselves in a preferential basket. In other words, as more people access the Internet through this initiative, it increases Facebook's and its partners' advertising constituency. Facebook and its partners should have been honest on this other than operating on a gimmick of a charity banner.

Third, the very idea propelled that 'Internet.org by Facebook' is misleading. Internet is not Facebook and neither Facebook is Internet. The Internet should be free from any corporate control.

Fourth, what people need are affordable internet services for everyone in the world. And in this case, we are talking of affordable access to the whole of the Internet and not necessarily 'free' access to some select few websites chosen by Facebook and friends. In Malawi, Internet costs are unjustifiably very high but certainly what many want is affordable access to the whole of the Internet other than 'free' access to a select few websites whose content is not even local.

I rest my case.


Introducing Biz Directory MW

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Biz Directory MW, accessed at http://www.bizdirectorymw.com/, is an easy to use online directory of businesses, products and services in Malawi. The directory serves as a meeting place for businesses/service providers and potential customers in Malawi. Customers may also rate and review the QUALITY of the services provided thus also giving customers a platform to comment on the services rendered to them by a business or service provider.

Biz Directory MW targets three kinds of clientele:
  • Large businesses and service providers may showcase their products and services on this platform hence meeting more potential customers
  • Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) may also have their businesses listed so that potential customers may know them and contact them accordingly when needing some service/product
  • Youths who are skilled and self-employed, e.g. in carpentry, plumbing, designing, etc, can use this platform to have their contacts and skills listed so that potential customers may easily access them hence promoting self-employment, job creation and self-reliance among youths in Malawi
The main aim of Biz Directory MW is to link up businesses and service providers in Malawi, from Nsanje to Chitipa, whether large or small, with potential customers such that at a click of a button, customers should be able to access information on potential service providers at a given location. Propelled by a powerful search engine, for example, a search "plumbers Karonga" should list all potential plumbers in Karonga, a search "restaurant Lilongwe" should list all potential restaurants in Lilongwe, etc


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