Even without smartphones, internet or electricity, rural Malawians are gaining access to video material through young entrepreneurs called DJs who work mainly from barber shops.
In small towns in Malawi, young men who want to start their own ICT business are teaming up with the unlikeliest of partners, including barbers. The entrepreneurs are almost always men in their 20s or even teens. Most have some schooling and can read and write. They call themselves DJs, copying video materials for a small fee in a shop called a “burning centre”.
Many of these DJs partner with relatives or friends who have some sort of shop. This senior partner buys a used computer or a PC assembled in Malawi, which can cost about US$200: a lot of money for the youth, but affordable for an older man with a small, profitable business. Kinship is crucial in this relation. There can be mistrust and tension between shopkeepers who buy a PC and simply hire a youngster: the older man doesn’t understand exactly what the young one is doing.
A barber is the perfect partner for an ICT shop. Both businesses rely on a little skill, some fixed capital assets and a loyal customer base. When the barber can no longer find more heads to cut, an ICT shop where they burn video materials may be a logical way to expand, and clients like the combined services of uploading videos while getting a haircut.
The shop itself is just a small room with some plastic chairs or a wooden bench, and a PC on a table. The DJs live in small towns with electricity, while they also sell cold drinks, stationary or other small items and ICT services. The clients are often smallholder farmers. After buying supplies and paying to charge up their cell phones, the farmers pass by the burning centre to upload some videos or ask for other small ICT services. Back in the village, they watch the movies in the evening with friends or family.
The customers rarely ask for a specific title; they say they want so many movies of a certain genre (Nigerian, Hollywood, Indian or Malawian gospel music, for example). Each upload costs between 20 and 100 kwacha (US$0.03 to US$0.14), depending on the DJ and the file size. The more successful DJs buy DVDs in the city, or from travelling salesmen, “rip” (download) the content onto their hard disk, and convert it to 3GP format (smaller file size, and runs on a phone). Struggling DJs swap movies with their friends.
Few of the DJs have access to internet or email, although they do have Facebook on their cell phones. The DJs like movies and some are making their own movies or music videos. They share the videos they make with their friends, so even though they are off the internet, they have a real-life social network to swap original and copied content. Some DJs can provide other ICT services, as farmers begin to demand them, for example they sell blank CDs, and helping to film or edit videos of local events.
The burning centres pay no royalties, so Malawian entertainers have the cold comfort of becoming famous without getting rich. But for the non-profit development sector, the DJs can be ideal partners, to get educational videos into farmers’ hands. In 2015, the international NGO Access Agriculture distributed educational videos for farmers in 3GP and on DVD to 70 DJs. The DJs sold 456 DVDs and 645 videos in 3GP on the parasitic weed Striga, 551 DVDs and 547 3GP videos on rice, and 507 DVDs and 559 3GP videos on chilli growing and processing. By tapping into entrepreneurial DJs, educational videos can be distributed to thousands of rural people.