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ICTworks Interview with Clement Nyirenda, a Malawian ICT Blogger in Japan

By Wayan Vota on August 20, 2010

Now what could be more surprising than a Malawian blogging about ICT in his country while studying in Japan? How about the high quality of Clement Nyirenda’s ICT Blog posts? As a frequent reader, I’ve always had a few questions I wanted to ask him, and recently got the chance to quiz Clement on his life and work.

Clement Nthambazale Nyirenda in Japan

1. So how does a Malawian wind up in Tokyo? How did you get a Japanese Government Scholarship?

Many people, both Japanese and non-Japanese, usually ask me the first question. My interest in Japan dates back to the early 80s during my primary school days. Just like many developing countries, Japan’s high-tech products such as cars and motorbikes are very common in Malawi. At that tender age, it was my wish to study in the country that produces all these products.

This interest, however, died down when I doing my undergraduate studies in Electrical Engineering at the University of Malawi. After completing my undergraduate studies, I saw at least three yearly invitations for the Japanese government scholarship applications but I did not bother to apply because I was scared of language problems. Besides that, some people told me that life in Japan is very tough for foreigners because Japan is a closed society.

Instead, I got a scholarship from the African Network of Scientific and Technological Institutions (ANSTI), a UNESCO project, which enabled me to pursue a Master’s degree in Computer Engineering at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa from 2004 to 2006. My work involved the application of fuzzy logic in communication networks. It was during this period that I realized that the Japanese have been doing a lot of exciting work in the field of fuzzy control for many years.

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As my MSc research was drawing to a close, I sent an email, attaching my CV, to Professor Kaoru Hirota, a seasoned researcher in fuzzy control, at Tokyo Institute of Technology, expressing my interest to study under his supervision. He encouraged me to apply for the Japanese government scholarship at the Japanese embassy in my home country. I applied for the scholarship through the Japanese embassy in Zambia, which was also responsible for Malawi at that time.

In July 2007, I attended interviews along with 4 others competing for one slot. Two days later, I received a phone call from the Japanese embassy in Zambia, notifying me that I was successful. In April, 2008, I arrived in Tokyo to study in Professor Hirota’s lab at Tokyo Institute of Technology, initially as a research student for 6 months and later as a PhD student for 3 years. I am now in the second year of my PhD. If all goes according to plan, I will graduate in September 2011.

2. Coming from Malawi, Japan is a massive culture shock. What’s one difference related to ICT4D that surprised you?

Yes, Japan is huge culture shock. And true to the words of some people that I met when I was an undergrad, Japan is still a closed society, more especially in the Tokyo/Yokohama area. In the Kansai area (Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe) area, people tend to open up a bit more. It is, however, very interesting to see deep cultural values persist despite industrialization.

In terms of ICT4D, there are many surprises, but the biggest and perhaps the most fundamental one concerns the bandwidth of the Internet connections. Here in Japan, I have a 100Mbps fiber connection in my apartment, for which I pay slightly more than $40. On the other hand, the cost of dial-up Internet at one of the major ISPs in Malawi ranges from $12 to $70, while basic 64kbps and 128kbps wireless connections cost US$250 and US$480 respectively. If in Africa we can have access to extremely cheap and fast Internet, there would be many opportunities in the ICT4D realm.

Making Clement happy is easy

3. Did your family join you in Tokyo? If so, or not, how has that impacted your studies? Would you advise others to bring their family when they study abroad?

Yes, my family joined me here in February 2009. Before they joined me here, I was always worried about their welfare in Malawi. I used to phone them almost every day. Now that they are here with me, I am relieved.

The good thing about Japan, which might not be the case in other countries, is that the government gives child allowance even to foreign children whose parents total income is lower than a certain threshold. As of this year, this allowance is 13,000 Japanese yen per child, which becomes 26,000 Japanese Yen for my two kids. Furthermore, foreigners, who are legally staying here, can also apply for government housing. Competition is very tough, but you lose nothing when you try luck. As I write, we are staying a government house, for which the monthly rent is 90% lower than the previous apartment. It is also more spacious.

I would certainly advise others to bring their family when they study abroad.

4. Did you find a community of Africans in Tokyo? If so, how is it different than meeting other Africans in Malawi – like are you friends with those you may have not noticed if you were living at home?

Compared to people from other continents, there are fewer Africans in Tokyo. I have good friends from Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe and many other African countries. Because we are very far from home, we behave as if we come from the same country. If we were in Africa, that would not happen.

5. How do you plan on transferring your PhD experience to your teaching at Malawi Polytechnic?

For the time being, it will generally be very difficult to transfer my PhD experience to my teaching at the Malawi Polytechnic. The major reason is that in my Electrical Engineering department, we only offer BSc programs. The knowledge that I acquired at MSc level was enough for teaching courses in these programs. With a PhD, I would love to work with postgraduate students, more especially research students in Communication Systems and Computational Intelligence, which are my twin research fields.

I am looking forward to seeing the Malawi Polytechnic launching a Masters program in Communication Systems in the near future. With that program in place, it will be easy to work with some of the students on Computational Intelligence based topics in Communication Systems. It is much easier and cheaper to employ lecturers in Communication Systems than in Computational Intelligence, which is still at a nascent stage. By the way, the latter is my major passion.

Advanced ICT swarm intelligence

6. What aspects of Swarm Intelligence and Fuzzy Logic tools can we apply to ICT4D?

Swarm Intelligence (SI) is the property of a system where collective behavior of simple agents causes coherent solutions or patterns to emerge. SI is generally inspired by the interesting aspects of social insect behavior such as self-organization, decentralized control and shape-formation, in order to solve difficult computational problems. Some of the major research directions are Ant Colony Optimization (ACO) and Particle Swarm Optimization (PSO). ACO has been successfully applied to difficult discrete optimization problems while PSO has been applied to continuous optimization problems.

On the other hand, fuzzy logic, proposed by Prof. Zadeh in 1965, is a multi-valued logic derived from fuzzy set theory, aimed at dealing with reasoning that is imprecise. In contrast to Boolean logic, fuzzy values may have a truth value that ranges between 0 and 1. It manipulates linguistic concepts to help engineers to build intelligent control systems, expert systems, prediction systems and many other systems.

My research focuses on the development of SI based multi-objective fuzzy systems for communication networks mainly in the areas of congestion control, routing and self-organization.

In terms of application in the context of ICT4D, there are many potential applications. For in stance, I know a company which is already using SI in radio network optimization. As the uptake of mobile phone technology in the developing world continues to increase exponentially, SI optimization techniques, if adopted properly, may help to ensure that the quality of service is not compromised.

In future, as e-learning systems become more ubiquitous in the LDCs, even at community levels, adaptive collaborative techniques, which will enable different students or members of the community to choose different learning sequences, will become necessary. SI is one of the tools which can be used to create such systems. Simple fuzzy logic tools can also be customized for important ICT4D applications in telemedicine and health care information systems, mapping and protection of natural resources, forecasting weather patterns and pest outbreaks, and so on.

It is also worthy pointing out that, depending on the problem, fuzzy logic and SI approaches can be hybridized with each other or with other Computational Intelligence paradigms such as Artificial Neural Networks (ANNs) and Evolutionary algorithms in order to combine their respective strengths.

7. With so few African bloggers, what was your inspiration to start writing? What African or ICT4D blogs or writers do you read regularly?

I was inspired to start writing by two Malawian colleagues, late Mangaliso Jere, who used to work for an ISP in Mzuzu, and Soyapi Mumba, a Software Development Manager in Lilongwe. Mzuzu is a city in Northern Malawi while Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital city, is located in the Central Region. I used to enjoy reading their articles and ultimately decided to start my own blog. I wrote my first article in March 2006. Back then, I was using Google’s Blogger. In 2007, I moved my blog to a self-hosted WordPress blogging platform and, since then, it has kept on growing. I use the money that I make from adverts and other forms of sponsorships to pay for hosting and domain fees and, of course, my labor.

One thing that I like about blogging is that it links me up with some very important and exciting people like you, Wayan, from whom I learn a lot. There are many ICT4D blogs that I like to read, but the ones that stand out are http://whiteafrican.com/ and http://www.afrigadget.com/. I also like http://www.kabissa.org/, an ICT4D network of1500+ organizations active throughout Africa.

8. Anything else…?

I would like to thank you for granting me the opportunity to be interviewed.

If you too would like to be interviewed, let me know!

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks and is the Digital Health Director at IntraHealth International. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of IntraHealth International or other ICTWorks sponsors.
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5 Comments to “ICTworks Interview with Clement Nyirenda, a Malawian ICT Blogger in Japan”

  1. Surely, I enjoyed this post, especially looking at how Clement follows critically what is happening here back home. I am very much inspired by his keenness.

    I don’t know if your course in CI touches on artificial neural networks. I’d be a Poly beneficiary esp. in machine learning :-).

  2. Clement says:

    Edmond, thanks. About my research, I currently do not use Artificial Neural Networks (ANNs). But I am well conversant with this area. Before coming to Japan, I developed a Computational Intelligence module for the BSc (Computer Engineering) for the Polytechnic, which has an ANN component among other things. But in your case, because you already have a BSc degree, you just have to embark on a self study using the materials from the Internet in readiness for your postgraduate studies.

  3. Anonymous says:

    CLEMO,

    Just arrived in Japan and will be here for a month. Iam in Ibaraki City at JICA-OSAKA INTERNATIONAL TRAINING CENER.

    Would you give me the same so i can call and we can talk and make arrangements! Thaty would be great!

    My email is douglas_kamanga@yahoo.co.uk

    Regards,

    Douglas

  4. Boydd Mkaka Mwabutwa says:

    Its inspiring to read this article about one of the lecturers who once taught me during my college days.

  5. Clement says:

    Many thanks for your comment. I am equally inspired when I see you guys progressing in your chosen career paths. I also feel like saying: “Mulole ntchito zamanja anga zindichitire umboni.” Lol!!!