Connecting to the Internet from Blantyre

Just got back from visiting family in beautiful Blantyre. It’s rainy season now and there are regular rain showers every other day. Everything is green and lush. The sun is hot. The air is moist. And the shopping centres and outdoor markets of Blantyre are busy with holiday shopping. And except for a couple of power cuts and short water supply intermissions, I had good access to Blantyre’s “Big Three” from my part of town.

In search of the best Internet connection in Blantyre
To connect with my MBA study group, I needed an internet connection. Here are some of my findings and observations regarding Internet for private use.

Internet service providers in Blantyre include:

  • Skyband – the pricing is on the high end; suitable for corporate customers.
  • MTL
  • Globe
  • SDNP

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Mobile phone networks offer data services as well:

  • Zain – a friend connects to the mobile Internet on his iPhone using Zain.
  • TNM

First, I tried TNM, but unfortunately they did not have any USB dongles in stock at the Chichiri sales office.

globe max 4g

Next I tried Globe’s MAX 4G service. This promised the best connection speeds, but unfortunately the reception in my part of Blantyre was less than optimal. Instead of 4 LEDs lighting up, I only got between 2 and 3. And even then, the router showed a high fluctuation in signals. I kept losing my Skype audio connection when the signal dropped. When I got a strong signal it was speedy. But – due to my geographic position – the signal strength was unpredictable. I contacted Globe support and they wanted to update the firmware of the router and stated that they were some problems with Skype, which they had resolved.
If you don’t need audio or video streaming and if coverage in your area is good, then Globe MAX 4G is a good and viable option. But check the signal strength beforehand. Following the signal fluctuations, I started speculating about the quality of the provided Globe router, the influence of the weather, etc. When I returned the router, Globe suggested installing an external antenna to boost the wifi signal. At the end of the day, I think your geographic position and proximity to the signal decides whether this solution will work for you or not.

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MTL (Malawi Telecommunications Limited) offers a wireless broadband product called MTL Liberty. A friend in Namiwawa strongly recommended it. The company is also advertising a new fibre optic cable connection in all major newspapers. I walked into an MTL shop near FMB in Blantyre to find out more about the fibre optic cable connection. The MTL sales person said that this will indeed connect Malawi to the Seacom cable and improve the Internet backbone, but it was not yet connected. He advised me to go to the MTL headquarters for more information. I didn’t have time to follow up on this.

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I went back to TNM; this time to the head office in Livingstone Towers. The sales consultant was very savvy and explained the various data bundling options very well. I found out that if I have a postpaid TNM sim card, I can easily add mobile data services. The consultant advised me to wait another week and buy a 3G USB dongle. He said the 3G USB modem will go on sale on 30th December 2009. TNM is currently testing 3G in parts of Blantyre.

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Automatic software downloads
Coming from Switzerland and a flat rate setup where I don’t care how many MBs are downloaded in the background, to a price plan where every MB counts, I realized how dependent software has become on a high speed internet connection. I was unable to download the latest Symantec Norton anti-virus update on my mom’s laptop via Globe Wifi at Chichiri because Norton timed out after 6 MB. I tried 3 times before I gave up. Unfortunately iGetter didn’t help cos Norton connects directly from the app. All kinds of software from Adobe Reader to Mozilla Firefox want to connect and download updates at regular intervals. It’s OK if you’re using a flat rate but if every kB costs extra time and money…

Software companies should consider alternative options for developing countries. Cloud computing is not yet available everywhere.

My mom had to go to SDNP to get her legally purchased version of MS Office registered *online*. What a hassle.

Flat rates connections are not yet very widespread in Malawi and usually only corporate customers can afford them. Most of my friends have Internet at their workplace or on their mobile handset only.

Opera 10
I strongly recommend getting Opera. Opera Turbo loads web pages much faster and compresses images. Thank you to Appfrica for their excellent article pointing to resources and tools.

Web design
Pages optimized for mobile internet and simple HTML load much faster than CMS-based web pages.

I was able to access the mobile version of chiperoni.ch at an acceptable speed. While other sites failed to display.

If you are targeting developing countries, please consider this in your web design.

Resize photos for lower bandwidth
Same for emails. My mom still connects using dial-up. Downloading 1.2 MB takes 20 to 30 minutes and many times the connection breaks. And she pays for the length of the dial-up connection. But, so many people from Europe forget to resize their photos for lower bandwidth. Please resize your photos before sending!

In Picasa 3 it’s really easy. Go to Tools > Options > Email and select a new size such as 640 pixel:

email options picasa

You can then email a photo from the Picasa interface.

Malawi Twitterers

As Malawi celebrates independence day tomorrow, here is a list of Malawi twitterers you might like to follow:

Vincent Kumwenda – currently at Muloza border, Mulanje; topics include Malawi news, world news, interesting Malawi web pages, and soccer. He also writes a blog.

Fred Bvalani – in Blantyre; tweets about mobile applications and phones, Oracle training in freezing cold Cape Town, Manchester United, movies, church, Escom power cuts, and Malawi news and websites. Check out his blog.

Dannie Grant Phiri – first started twittering during the recent Malawi elections; writes about Malawi and soccer in his blog at http://daniso.weebly.com/.

Soyapi Mumba – well-known Malawi blogger and twitterer, software developer, volunteer developer at Ushahidi, lives in Lilongwe. He writes about software development, interesting mobile and web applications, Malawi news. He is the programmer behind Owinna – a web app on Malawi football league fixtures and results, as well as the Premier league and other international championships. You can access this information through the website or SMS by texting FOLLOW owinna to +447624801423 or on Twitter.

Clement Nyirenda – blogs and twitters from Tokyo, where he is doing a PhD in computer science. He covers many IT and development topics related to Malawi. A good resource to learn about projects such as Seacom. He discusses entrepreneurial ventures and their effect on Malawi. Read his blog post on Ashton Kutcher’s Twitter stunt to raise awareness about malaria.

There are many more, which I might mention in a second blog post.

My BlogCamp Switzerland Talk

As announced on Twitter, I presented a talk on mobile technology in Malawi at today’s BlogCamp in Zurich to share what I’m learning from the African blogs and tweets that I follow on a regular basis.

I started my talk with a short intro on Chiperoni (I am a bridge blogger somewhere between Basel and Blantyre) and why I blog. How much I appreciated Alex Antener’s news stream published on a Polytechnic server during the last Malawi general election. Then pointing to White African’s blog post discussing Twitter’s decision to discontinue its SMS service to the rest of the world. I tried to point out the potential a “Twitter to SMS” service could have for Malawi, where most of the population does not have access to the internet or even a plain old fixed telephone line.

Soyapi Mumba's Blog: The Potential of Twitter in Africa

I described the current situation. And how this is changing with mobile technology. I pointed to Mike McKay’s blog post about a rural area in northern Malawi where villagers climb an ant hill to get a better signal.

In Switzerland we take a lot of things such as the excellent infrastructure we have for granted.

I shared some of my observations from my recent holiday in Blantyre, some data on the pricing models and how public wifi is being introduced in urban areas.

tnm || always with you

Zain Malawi - SMS text messages - Prices

I was a little shaky on the stats side of things, telecommunication regulations, as well as who owns the major cell phone service companies, TNM and Zain. I’ll need to do more research here. I might have got some of my facts mixed up.

I did refer to the new airtime tax that is being introduced.

Examples referred to:

This talk was inspired by White African’s and Soyapi Mumba’s tweet streams. Zikomo kwambiri. Keep on tweeting.

Flickr credits: White African, Hackerfriendly, all other photos are my own.

Big zikomo to Persillie and Mlle A. for reviewing my slides!

I enjoyed presenting very much (note to myself).

Oh and I forgot to mention my chat with a Limbe internet cafe manager during the talk…

Limbe Internet Cafe

Twitter, SMS and Africa

This recent Twitter announcement is disappointing on a personal level, but also on a more global level as White African discusses:

Twitter represents a change in communication. By acting as a global gateway for updates via SMS (or the web), that then updates all of your followers, Twitter succeeded in breaking ground in one-to-many messaging. There have been a couple times over the past year where Twitter was used in Africa to get news out that wasn’t possible in any other format.

And in the comment thread he explains:

What’s missing for it to work in Africa is not just the sending of updates, but the receiving of your contacts updates. That really is what created the network effect for Twitter, and why it can’t succeed where it’s not available.

In Africa, not having SMS is a deal killer. Though there would undoubtedly be users who access it through the web – as is true throughout the rest of the world, true penetration in Africa can only come through services that can be fully operational using only SMS. Why I think this is particularly disappointing is that those third generation Twitter services that could really serve the needs of both ordinary Africans and humanitarians globally will not be built now.

The really interesting thing to me, so that Twitter doesn’t have to shoulder the load by itself, is the opportunity to build services that are separate and independent, but also equal. I guess the closest analogy I have would be to Jabber in this case – where anyone can run a server and that makes the whole greater than the sum of it’s parts.

A very interesting thread, which I’d like to recommend here.

My observations in Blantyre:

  • Despite the relative high cost, nearly everybody has a cell phone.
  • The top present to get for your girlfriend is a cell phone (!).
  • Most people use prepaid cards. See the current tariff plans at Zain (previously Celtel) and tnm.
  • Cell phones are helping to connect remote places, that never had a telephone connection. Villagers can hear more often and directly from family members that have moved to the cities or emigrated to SA, the USA and other countries. Farmers can compare market prices, receive weather updates. See Cy’s video.
  • Internet services are relatively expensive. Out of reach for personal use. Connecting via fixed line is slow and error prone. The way forward is wifi. Despite these encouraging developments, Internet will remain out of reach for most people for many years to come.

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Hong Kong Restaurant in Blantyre, Malawi

Hong Kong Restaurant in Blantyre

Chinese restaurant in downtown Blantyre in Malawi.

(BTW, this is a Chiperoni.ch Internet Marketing experiment….

If you read this blog post and then end up going to eat at this BT restaurant, please tell the owners where you first heard about it…)

Back from Blantyre

I spent a couple of sunny, winter days in Malawi’s biggest city, visiting family and meeting friends.

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I’ve started uploading some of my snapshots to Flickr. More to come as I sift thru the GBs of data.

Travel was uneventful, except for the fact that my luggage took 6 days to arrive in Blantyre. It started out with a harmless announcement by the SAA pilot that he would need to unload some cargo due to overloading. Overloading a plane is a safety issue, and I’d rather wait for my bags than crash into some mountain. Later during the flight, the pilot announced that 23 bags had been left behind. But no worries, the bags would be brought to Chileka on a later flight on the same day. This was the start of various misinformed messages.

The flights between Jo’burg and Blantyre are always fully booked and a lot of cargo is shipped by air.

Anyway, my bags finally arrived in good condition. The SAA staff at the Blantyre office were very polite and helpful. And I learnt that I’ll put my camera charger into my camera bag. Instead of my checked luggage.

Flying back was uneventful as well. Except for a small scare. During the security scan check at Chileka, my camera bag fell right through a defect rung in the conveyor belt onto the floor. Luckily the bag is well-padded and nothing happened to my cam.

Cam bag = already amortized.

Another Chileka detail, I’ll not forget so fast: several Blantyre kindergarden and school classes came out to the airport to watch the aeroplane land and take off. Just for fun. They sat on top of the observation deck’s wall, shouting “aeroplane” and stomping their feet on the iron sheet roof of the departure hall below.

Recurring news topics:

The attacks on foreigners in some South African townships had many Malawians worried about their relatives. Several dozen buses were sent to bring home fleeing Malawians. For generations Malawians have gone to South Africa to work there. And some have lived all their life in SA. From a linguistic perspective I wondered why the BBC and other media used the term “xenophobic attacks” instead of the “r” word.

Muluzi’s arrest.

The Zimbabwe election.

Internet in Blantyre:

wifi at Shoprite / Chichiri

Compared to last year, there are more WiFi hotspots. The costs are high, especially for private customers. The IT marketer in me kept discussing possible business ideas that improved connectivity could entail for Blantyre-based companies. E.g. outsourcing accounting services to Blantyre or working with a creative agency.

It was good to see BT. A mixture of peanut butter, BBC World Service, Chombe tea, nsima, boerewors, chiperoni, jumping dogs, waiting…

Web to SMS

for future reference:

I use Twitter’s direct messages to send out an occasional text message. I’m trying to set up a Twitter account for my family in Blantyre. The idea would be to DM them via Twitter. But somehow, the cell phone authentication is *not* working. (Any ideas?)

As an alternative, I found this page listing services that offer free text messages from a web interface, mostly for Switzerland:

http://www.tiptom.ch/gratis/sms.html

A third alternative is to upload a couple of Euro/$/CHF to my Skype account and text directly from my Skype client. I’ve used this in the past for text messages and voice. Works great.

The van der Post trail

Found this interesting read at Times Online:
A voyage round my father

A daughter follows her father’s footsteps to Mount Mulanje.

Page three of the article includes travel tips.

Malawi is Africa as it once was, so there are no vast luxurious holiday compounds and few sumptuous lodges to insulate you from the masses.

Here are a couple of links on the book “Venture to the Interior” by Laurens van der Post: 1 2