Five young people leading Malawi’s tech transformation

    By Caitríona Palmer

    Meet Wangiwe, Sithembile, Kelvin, Daniel and Bright. These five young people are pillars in Malawi’s growing tech community who are connected to the digital world to a degree that no generation before could have imagined. Shaped by the internet and mobile phones, they are utilising technology to help build brighter, more prosperous futures, not just for themselves but for millions of other young people across Malawi.

    Digital Opportunities in African Businesses, a new IFC report, outlines how Africa’s digital startup ecosystem is still nascent but stands out as one of the fastest growing worldwide, underscored by a sevenfold increase in deals between 2015 and 2022. While 60% of tech firms in Africa are less than 10 years old, as in other regions, younger tech firms are more disruptive than their older peers. To attract high talent and foster entrepreneurship, the report recommends policies to support tech entrepreneurs in developing and adapting digital technologies for the local operating context.

    As millions of small businesses across Africa stand on the cusp of a digital transformation, these five young people are ready to lend a hand – armed with expertise in technology, innovation, business solutions and a can-do spirit – to young Malawians coming up behind.

    1. Wangiwe Kambuzi, founder and managing director, Mzuzu E-Hub

    In 2016, Wangiwe Kambuzi (33) took the decision to leave the safety of her corporate banking job to pursue a dream to open her own event-planning business. With limited resources or mentorship available for young entrepreneurs, Kambuzi found the experience to be a challenge. “It was one of those situations when you ask, ‘Why is it so difficult to navigate entrepreneurship? Where are the resources? Who are the people in this space’,” Kambuzi remembers. “It was really difficult to find that platform.”

    The experience sparked another seed and Kambuzi decided to change entrepreneurial course. In 2017 she opened Mzuzu E-Hub, a vibrant business development support service in Mzuzu, northern Malawi, that helps young entrepreneurs find their footing in incubating and opening a business. Now, having helped more than 430 emerging entrepreneurs, Kambuzi has unleashed the potential of a community of new business leaders.

    One key pillar of Mzuzu E-Hub’s mission is to facilitate technological and digital integration. This is critical, Kambuzi says, in a country with high rates of unemployed youth. “We find that many young people are waiting for someone to come and solve their problems. They don’t have access to diverse opportunities and skills that can actually give them something to do,” says Kambuzi, noting that Mzuzu E-Hub has already reached some 5,000 clients in the local community. “That is why we are here.”

    Tailoring Mzuzu E-Hub’s mission to the local Malawian context has been critical to the group’s success, says Kambuzi.

    “It is important not to have people bring solutions from elsewhere to Malawi,” she says . “Rather they should be homegrown, scaled, and then sustained to become solutions that are helping all of us.”

    So too has been elevating young women with entrepreneurial dreams similar to her own: “This new Malawian business ecosystem is more intentional about supporting women entrepreneurs,” she says. “This is the time to start doing things.”

    2. Sithembile Banda, head of programmes, and Kelvin Mateyu, business development officer, Nxtgen Labs

    A self-professed tech nerd, Sithembile Banda (24) never thought that she would land a dream job nurturing digital innovation in Malawi. But just one year following her graduation from university, Banda is helping other young Malawians bring their emerging technologies to life, working as a programme manager with Nxtgen Labs, a Lilongwe based coding and robotics lab.

    “When I was in college, I had no idea about the tech ecosystem in Malawi,” says Banda. “I thought that Malawi was outdated and that there was not much happening.”

    Banda oversees one of Nxtgen Lab’s educational programmes, targeted towards primary and secondary school kids across Malawi. With funding and partnership from Save the Children, kids across Malawi learn to draw using digital art platforms, to code, and create computer games.

    The goal is not only to encourage children to express themselves through digital art but also to inspire and open young minds to potential careers in animation and gaming development.

    “We don’t have a game development industry in Malawi, so this programme is also an attempt to create an entirely new industry,” says Kelvin Mateyu (27), Nxtgen Lab’s business development officer. A published novelist, Mateyu teaches creative writing as a component to Nxtgen’s digital art programme.

    Under Nxtgen’s ‘Zantchito’ incubation programme, there are currently 88 tech innovations created by young people targeted towards solving some of Malawi’s greatest challenges in development, climate change, and inclusion. Youth between the ages of 18 to 35 in the programme are working on innovations that include creating solar cookers, pet food, and skateboards.

    Under Nxtgen’s Future-M-Project, in partnership with Save the Children, an 18-year-old high school student with no prior experience in computer programming has developed an early warning flood system. Another high school student, Mateyu says, has developed software to help visually impaired children get ahead of the school curriculum.

    Mateyu and Banda view these entrepreneurial innovations as potential “game changers” for Malawi’s economy, especially in terms of a growing market for export.

    “I think that the rate of tech growth in Malawi over the next five years will be huge,” says Banda, “thanks to the innovations and resources that young people here are now exposed to.”

    3. Daniel Mvalo, technical and development manager, mHub

    As a kid growing up in Lilongwe, Daniel Mvalo loved to play FIFA, arguably the world’s most popular simulation video game. Now, as an adult, Mvalo’s passion for computers has only intensified as he helps young people across Malawi use technology to build brighter futures.

    As the technical and development manager for mHub, Malawi’s first technology and innovation hub, Mvalo (30) oversees mHub’s programming and helps develop in-house technology solutions. To date, mHub has developed software applications for election monitoring, citizen engagement, archiving, e-commerce, and human rights.

    Confident that technology can be used to solve some of Malawi’s biggest problems, Mvalo is most passionate about mHub’s reach to young people across the capital, Lilongwe, and in rural areas.

    “Across Malawi, we are seeing a huge increase in technologies across mobile payments, wallets and financial tools,” Mvalo says. “There is an urgent need for people to embrace these new technologies even though they are not conversant with the utilisation of these gadgets.”

    From ‘Robotic Thursdays’ to ‘Geek Quest’ – an informal gathering for young Malawian software developers – Mvalo directs a vibrant community of like-minded Malawian tech youth who gather weekly at mHub’s Lilongwe headquarters to discuss programming success and challenges. Around these meet ups, children aged 8 to 16 partake in lively robotic, AI, and coding classes.

    Seeing young people come to grips with programming roadblocks reminds Mvalo of the curiosity that drove him as a young boy to find ways to improve the video games that he loved so much. “Back then, I was frustrated by the pace of the games running on my computer,” he remembers. “I wanted to know what statistics and programming I could add to make the game run more efficiently.”

    Now, Mvalo has transferred those problem-solving skills to mHub’s mission to build a new community of tech-aware Malawians.

    The numbers speak for themselves: “So far, we have trained over 4,000 kids in coding skills, 2,000 of whom are females,” says Mvalo. “We have also provided digital literacy skills to more than 4,000 underprivileged youth.”

    4. Bright Chidzumeni, innovations manager, Save the Children

    For Bright Chidzumeni, the key to successful youth engagement is allowing young people to take the lead when it comes to tackling the challenges that they face.

    That’s why Bright (31), the innovations manager for Save the Children in Lilongwe, and his colleagues developed a popular ‘Hackathon’ to encourage young Malawians to use programming, coding, and software development to create digital solutions for issues including climate change, mental health, and abuse.

    “We realised that the best way that we can help the children and youth of Malawi is to engage them in developing their own solutions,” Chidzumeni says.

    The outcome, Chidzumeni says, has been astonishing.

    He points to a mental health ‘chatbot’ developed by a young woman in Malawi who, like so many young people across the globe, experienced depression during the Covid-19 pandemic.

    “It was difficult for her to find a person that she could confide in, or to just get basic information,” he says. “So, she designed this interface where you can connect with your phone, share your problems, and receive social support.”

    The success of this digital solution is based on its simplicity, Chidzumeni says. All that is required is access to WhatsApp – a widely used application across Malawi – to be then connected, via the ‘chatbot’, with a pool of therapists ready to help.

    While the ‘chatbot’ is still in the piloting phase, Chidzumeni and Save the Children are currently engaging with Malawi’s Ministry of Health and a National Task Force on Mental Health and Psychological Support to discuss the potential that it could be adopted nationally.

    In addition to helping incubate digital solutions, Save the Children is also boosting digital literacy skills in Malawi’s rural areas, where 80% of the population live.

    “In rural Malawi, there is a high digital divide among children who have never seen a computer before,” Chidzumeni says. “Through our rural innovation hub, we teach them the very basic of digital skills.”

    Step by step, child by child, Chidzumeni is confident that Malawi’s digital footprint is making progress. “Already, we are seeing an impact in the lives of many young people across Malawi,” he says.

    This article was first published by the International Finance Corporation.

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