#MalawiFloods and A to Z: L is for…

Preface: Malawi has suffered terrible, devastating floods over the past few of weeks – see #MalawiFloods. It’s now a humanitarian crisis with a huge impact for the future as well. So it requires our attention and help. Ryan Reynolds has tweeted a direct link to the fundraising campaign of an orphanage he visited in 2007. My friend Kathryn has written a vivid post about it here – please go read it to understand what it’s really like out there. You’ll also learn about the resilience and strength of the Malawian people to endure and carry on living, surviving. So, in an odd way, this quasi-humourous post is a dedication to them and their ability to carry on.




Sorry for the long break from the last post. Even though I’ve chosen not to have a TV since returning from Malawi, I still find myself to be extremely time poor… maybe it’s just my overwhelming inefficiency at everything caused by a need to procrastinate! Anyway, I said that I would finish this A to Z before ending the blog, so here’s another step.

  • “L” is for, well, “R”?!

Malawians have a tendency to use L’s and R’s interchangeably, which can be confusing and sometimes have rather funny consequences. It’s a trait shared with many Chinese people, so it has extra resonance for me.

Long and “rong”
Late and rate
Lice and rice, fry and fly (which is also a simple playground game which every kid plays; it’s kind of like dodgeball)
Laugh and “raff”
A shop sign bearing: “Airwolrd” in Airtel‘s bright red colour scheme is a sight to behold. Lastry, elections can be a funny time for multiple reasons…

Come all and erect our leaders!

Come all and erect our leaders!

  • Lilongwe – The capital city and my home for 18 months.
Categories: Malawi, Volunteering, VSO | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

ICTworks: Lessons Learned From Working Firsthand in Malawi’s ICT Sector

My article from ICTworks, published last Friday. Enjoy! 🙂

Lessons Learned From Working Firsthand in Malawi’s ICT Sector

Published on: Nov 14 2014 by Guest Writer


My name is Herman Fung and I’m a former VSO volunteer in Malawi. In March 2014, I completed an 18-month voluntary placement where I worked with the Ministry of Health to build and implement Malawi’s first national, open source Human Resources Information System for the health sector, called iHRIS.

iHRIS is a suite of web-based health workforce software and it is currently live in 19 countries, supporting over 700,000 health workers.

Our project, iHRIS Malawi, was commissioned by the Ministry of Health in 2012, with support from VSO (funded byTHET) and USAID. The objective was to replace a centralized Microsoft Access database, which became defunct partly due to difficulties in collecting HR data in paper form, from far away rural districts to the MoH Headquarters, in the capital city of Lilongwe. Other reasons for its demise include a lack of working computers and limited continual end user training, which was required due to the generally low levels of computer literacy compounded by a very high turnover of staff.

A total of six volunteers were recruited from the UK and we teamed up with four Malawian colleagues. We regularly received vital help from the Global iHRIS Community, which is a critical part of iHRIS ecosystem and one of the key benefits of choosing iHRIS.


As you might expect, there were many challenges of implementing a new system that impacts critical operations like Human Resources. A fair share of these challenges relate to ICT, but a large proportion were to do with people and processes, too.

iHRIS is a web-based system and requires an Internet connection and power. When we first arrived and began working at the MoH Headquarters, we didn’t have enough sockets to plug our own laptops into. Scheduled electricity load-shedding and unplanned outages were a regular occurrence, and the MoH did not have its own generator. There were also regular water outages.

Once we got our project hub running, we began engaging our stakeholders in slow but constructive dialogue:

  • A separate government department which own the central payroll system for all civil servants, which transpired to be our primary data source
  • District HR Officers who would manage the changes to this data
  • Central HR Officers who would organize the data
  • Planning Officers from another MoH department who would use the data to make key decisions
  • A group of Senior Management champions to back the project throughout

We tried to use an Agile approach with regular feedback loops over many iterations. However, this proved difficult due to challenges with regular access to key people and resources. So we adapted to a more traditional Waterfall methodology, which was easier for our stakeholders to understand and actively participate.

The software itself was relatively easy to set up because we had the required technical expertise in the form of analysts and developers, as well as support from iHRIS teams around the world. However, acquiring the hardware and infrastructure required to run it was a considerable task. The logistical challenge and cost behind this part cannot be underestimated.

A 1024 kbps broadband Internet connection costs $850 USD per month, which we shared with other projects, and our server took 5 months to arrive due to a lengthy procurement and import process.

Throughout the development process, we kept long term sustainability high on our agenda. We endeavored to trainour Malawian colleagues and encourage them to take the lead as much as possible, which was a challenge – and also huge opportunity.


One of the key lessons we learned was that the overall journey of delivering the project was just as valuable as the end product or system itself.

Over the course of the project, we exchanged views and built trust amongst ourselves and with our stakeholders. We took on extra capacity building exercises outside of our project such as the overhaul of the communal Computer Room.


Most importantly, we engaged in a two-way knowledge sharing process with a steep learning curve for everybody: volunteers, Malawians, developers, users and managers.

We analyzed and mapped existing manual processes. Where they were broken, we questioned them, which prompted some remedial actions. We were adamant not to automate a broken process, which would have been counter-productive.

We had success in promoting the value of standardized data by setting up a regular User Forum, which mapped 300 different jobs into meaningful categories in WHO standard cadre groups.


The district-by-district rollout of the system is ongoing. My colleagues still working on the project are running continual end user training workshops. They are also making improvements to the system based on stakeholder feedback before handing the project over to the MoH in March 2015.

The valuable lesson I learned was the importance of gradual change. In our experience, evolution, not transformation,is the best approach to introduce an ICT system in Malawi.


Herman Fung is a British IT consultant, health techie and ex-VSO volunteer in Malawi, where he worked with the Ministry of Health to implement the country’s first national, open source Human Resources Information System for the health sector. Follow him on Twitter: @Fung14

Categories: Malawi, Technology, Volunteering, VSO, Work | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

A to Z: K is for…

  • Kamba Puffs – The ubiquitous maize snack. Full of salt but not a lot of nutrients. They’re somewhat hit and miss in my personal opinion. Sometimes, if you get a relatively fresh pack, they’re edible – still kinda fresh and crunchy. They do not taste good when they’re stale and soggy! In any case, all kids seem to love them. Just like rice is a once-a-year treat at Christmas for many, a packet of “Kamba” are traditionally part of a kid’s Christmas gift, along with one set of (second hand) clothes.
    PS. I’m really going to miss the kids and Malawi this Christmas.
  • Kawalazi Tea Estate – We visited Kawalazi when my family came to visit in October last year. It’s a big estate in the Northern Region, between Mzuzu and Nkhata Bay. A high altitude, hilly area with its own tropical micro climate. Hence the tea growing because of the rain. It was wet and muddy on the day we visited. So much so that I almost got our rented Toyota Land Cruise 4×4 stuck while taking a detour to get round a lorry which was really stuck and blocked the main road through the fields and fields of tea! We saw some fantastic scenery, got a tour of the factory and learned about the tea making process. Thanks again to my fellow volunteer Rona for arranging this.
  • Kandewe Cultural Heritage Site – Where the famous Basket Bridge is located. It has allegedly stood for almost 100 years – can’t remember the year it was built off the top of my head. On our way to Kawalazi, we stopped  by Kandewe. It is on one of the few roads going through the north! Kandewe is one of Coffee‘s (another VSO volunteer from Hong Kong) sites for her eco-tourism project, in partnership with the Ministry of Tourism.
A big bag of Kamba Puffs and Danny

A big bag of Kamba Puffs and Danny

Kawalazi Tea Estate, surrounded by beautiful rolling hills

Kawalazi Tea Estate, surrounded by beautiful rolling hills

Kandewe Cultural Heritage Site

Kandewe Cultural Heritage Site

Basket Bridge, Kandewe

Basket Bridge, Kandewe

The obligatory tourist, precariously crossing the Basket Bridge

The obligatory tourist, precariously crossing the Basket Bridge

Categories: Malawi, Travel, Volunteering, VSO | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Saturday Mornings

Everybody has a Saturday morning routine.

Mine has changed since coming home and starting work again. I have a recurring calendar entry to remind me to do laundry!

That’s the difference with living back in the first world, as my fellow VSO Malawi returned volunteer, Beth Connolly explains perfectly. Do go read her final blog post: Tionana Holy Family

But I still get a reminder of what it used to be like. Courtesy of Nyack and Catherine, who now run the new Breakfast Club. Nyack keeps me in the loop by WhatsApping me photos of the kids. Thanks big fella, they always brighten up my day!

At the risk of repeating myself once too many, today was worth posting. Because together with a big shout-out for our poster girl Beth, the kids received the photos I sent over with my friend Auden, and you can see the extra sparkle in their eyes. I should have done this sooner.



More photos

More photos

Still remembering to wash hands (I hope)

Still remembering to wash hands (I hope)

Iron Man fans: Georgie (George), Jeradi (Gerard), Dani (Danny)

Iron Man fans: Georgie (George), Jeradi (Gerard), Dani (Danny)

Still loving rice!

Still loving rice!

And apples, that unaffordable treat!

And apples, that unaffordable treat!

Categories: Malawi, Volunteering, VSO | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

A to Z: J is for…

  • Jambo – Swahili word for hello. Used plenty during my trip to Tanzania and Zanzibar.
  • Jumbo – Chichewa word for the ubiquitous plastic bag! Earlier this year, the Government of Malawi banned the sale and use of thin plastic bags. But of course, this is Malawi… so there was considerable legal wrangling to overturn this! Officially, it’s an attempt to protect the environment and curb the scourge of littering which happens in most places. Expectedly so since there is no real working waste disposal system, even in the capital city of Lilongwe. So people (including volunteers and expats) resort to burying, or worse, burning all their rubbish (“zinyalala“).

    All in all, a good idea in principle, going by the progress made on this issue by Rwanda – The Country That Bans Plastic Bags.

    However, as my savvy fellow volunteer David pointed out, the way this was implemented with such a short notice, brought severe livelihoods challenges for many street traders. In most markets, you’d find an invariably young boy trying to sell you a jumbo to carry your fresh vegetables and other groceries. I wonder what’s happened to them and their “trade” now.

Rubbish, kids and a "freshy" / FOB Chinaman

Operation Lap Sap

Categories: Malawi, Volunteering, VSO | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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