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Malawi’s expensive mobile phone habit

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By Emmanuel Igunza/ BBC Africa

One of the first things to strike a visitor to Malawi is the huge number of advertisements put up by mobile phone companies marketing their products.

“Muli bwanji? (How are you?)” reads one of the huge red billboards in the local language Chichewa.

Another colourful one shows the picture of a jet plane taking off, announcing cheaper call tariffs.

Everywhere you look across major towns in Malawi, you will see the attempt to entice consumers – from branding on umbrellas used by street vendors to T-shirts and even vans.

But mobile services are anything but low-priced in this country.

In fact, a report by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) says on average Malawians use more than $12 (£7.70) a month on mobile phones.

This is more than half of what an ordinary Malawian earns in a month.

Cheapest:

  • Macau, China – 0.11% of average monthly earnings
  • Hong Kong, China – 0.18 % of average monthly earnings
  • Denmark – 0.19% of average monthly earnings

Most expensive:

  • Malawi – 56.29% of average monthly earnings
  • Madagascar – 52.55% of average monthly earnings
  • Central African Republic – 51.63% of average monthly earnings

Cheapest in Africa:

  • Mauritius – 0.79% of average monthly earnings
  • Tunisia – 1.62% of average monthly earnings
  • Botswana – 1.64% of average monthly earnings

Source: ITU: Measuring the Information Society Report 2014

Court battle

“We have been complaining for some time now that the rates are very high,” laments a consumer in the capital, Lilongwe.

“Now researchers have shown the evidence that indeed we are paying a lot,” he says.

In a bid to bring down the charges in the telecommunications sector, the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (Macra) has commissioned an independent survey to analyse market trends.

Part of the recommendations presented by the experts is to increase competition in the sector, currently dominated by two operators.

Marca’s Ben Chisonga says the government might have to intervene to bring down the tariffs.

“We are thinking of introducing more data players in the market,” he says.

“For the current players, we are thinking of reducing the interconnection rates, which are about four cents per minute, which we believe, is the highest in the continent.”

In 2008, a third mobile phone operator was licensed for business in Malawi, but since then it has been embroiled in a court battle with the government after delaying a roll out of services.

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