Benedicto Baluwa, 42, of Chilomoni Township in Blantyre says he is frustrated by Internet financial transactions. He describes Malawi as a toddler in as far as embracing technology is concerned. Baluwa’s fury originates from a failed online bank transaction that cost his son the end of semester examinations.
“I like to move with the times and embrace new technologies, but I have so far been disappointed by online transaction in the country.
My son missed four papers of his final examinations at a university after a delayed online payment, although we transferred the money in good time,” he says angrily.
Baluwa, who runs a grocery shop and owns six houses in Blantyre, says this was not his first time. He says in January this year, he struggled to reclaim K5 000 from a bank after an automated teller machine (ATM) failed to provide airtime.
“It is frustrating. On that day, I bought K5 000 airtime, but did not get the token. I went to the bank and it took two weeks for the bank to reimburse my money,” says Banda.
He is not the only victim of intermittent network services for online transactions. During the interview, Baluwa was among people standing on queue at one of the bank’s ATMs in Blantyre.
“We have been on this line for two hours and we do not know when the network will resume. This is common at the end of the month,” said Dorica Chilele.
After Malawi Telecommunications Limited (MTL) and Escom connected the country to the fibre optic cable, people hoped that the country would easily move with the times in embracing modern technologies such as Internet banking. However, such hiccups as intermittent Internet services are proving to be a hurdle in the process..
Lloyd Momba, director of telecommunications at Malawi Regulatory Authority (Macra), says fibre optic cable is Internet connection supported by transmission of waves in light form through a thin glass tube. He says fibre optic cables are replacing copper wiring to increase the speed of digital information transmission.
Momba says the cables are bundles of extremely pure glass threads that have been coated in two layers of reflective plastic.
This connection has made it possible for customers for various phone companies and banks to pay for services such as water and electricity bills, DStv and GOtv and medical aid subscriptions online.
According to MTL, Malawi was first connected to the cable in 2010 and Momba says the advantages of the connection are already being felt. He singles out online banking and other transactions that are supported by Internet as some of the advantages of fibre optic cable..
“There are many advantages, the major ones being that internet is faster, cheaper and supports a higher capacity. It achieves what we call an information super highway as it connects the globe,” he says.
However, the challenges in unreliable Internet services are a dent on this otherwise good initiative. Again, there seems to be poor coordination between service providers.
Roderick Bakali, another Blantyre resident, says Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (Escom) and Blantyre Water Board (BWB) staff have disconnected his house from electricity and water from his house, respectively, despite having paid the bills online.
“Escom staff came a day after I had settled my bill online. I showed the employee the phone transaction reference number, but he said the payment is not visible in their system and that it takes three days to register. They went ahead to cut the power,” says Bakali.
This is probably why some shops (names withheld) in Blantyre have stopped accepting the Visa card payment system.
“Banks were taking long to account for the money and pay us. That is why we stopped,” said one shop manager.
A long time dealer of Airtel Money and TNM Mpamba in Blantyre, who identified himself as Ricco, laments that the intermittent network service is frustrating his business.
“We lose out when Internet services are intermittent. Sometimes transactions hang due to network problems and if repeated, the transaction can occur several times later and you lose out. Unfortunately, it is hard to recover the money because most customers are not cooperative,” laments Ricco.
An official at a telecommunications company, who opted for anonymity, admitted this, saying there are times when network hangs while the transaction is underway.
“But the system automatically recognises this and keeps the money or airtime to transfer it later. Double or triple transaction rarely occur, they represents only a small fraction of the transactions. But nothing is lost in the system and one can make a claim to get their money back,” he said.
Momba says his office is aware of the challenges, and that there is hope for improvement. He says despite the fibre optic cable facilitating great Internet access and online transactions, Malawi is still prone to some Internet challenges because Malawi is connected to a single submarine cable.
“There are two submarine cables, Eassy and Seacom. Currently we are connected through Mozambique and if the cable has problems we become powerless. Escom uses the overhead system and MTL uses the underground system and both are selling the service to various companies on wholesale,” explains Momba.
He says it is hard to pin down the intermittent Internet problem to one source.
“The reasons vary. It might be the bank’s problem or mobile phone system, the company’s access mechanism or indeed, failure of the submarine cable or the company that sells Internet service from the cable. For example, the MTL cable system is being frustrated by vandals,” says Momba.
He said soon, government, through the Regional Communication Infrastructure project, will tap Internet form the cable in Tanzania.
“We are connecting through Tanzania and when this happens, it means when one route fails the other will support us. We have already licensed Simbanet for the project and will create a visual landing point in Lilongwe, possibly in 18 months time where several companies can tap the Internet. This will create more competition, thereby reducing Internet costs and improving quality,” Momba explains.