Pull Quote: WordPress has allowed me to find income I otherwise would not have any way in hopes of earning.

WordPressing The Hard Way In Malawi

Photo of Robert Cheleuka

Robert Cheleuka

I am a self-taught graphic designer/ motion designer turned web designer and aspiring web developer from Malawi, Africa. I am a digital tinkerer who has fallen in love with and currently gone steady with WordPress. Still, the journey is rough.

A little about my home country before you hear my story…

Malawi

Gif of guy reading book, another guy slapping it away, saying Google ItMalawi, is at the time of my writing, the poorest country in the world. A tiny land locked country with a population of 17 million, AND still largely rural (about 75%) and struggling to develop.

The average entry level monthly pay for skilled jobs is about $110.

You are really fortunate if you are employed, young, working in the creative industry and earning somewhere near $300 a month. I doubt if anybody actually employed by someone in the design, creative and web services industry earns this much.

That being said, I have been a freelance graphic designer since about 2011, doing gigs from my dorm room in college and my bedroom at home. Earnings from my freelance gigs increased my interest in entrepreneurship and I soon started entertaining the thought of starting my own creative agency or media powerhouse.

HOW I FIRST CAME INTO CONTACT WITH WORDPRESS

I first came into contact with WordPress in 2014 when a friend of mine from University were planning to start a local tech blog. Before WordPress, all I had was basic and outdated HTML knowledge I learned from high school and some knowledge in Adobe Dreamweaver.

In 2014 very few websites in Malawi actually ran on WordPress as far as I remember. Most of the websites made in Malawi looked pretty archaic. With what to me was my partners expertise with WordPress Our blog looked like it came from the future. My partner knew where to get the themes (I did not know how he did it then, and still understood very little about WordPress).

In a little while, ecstatic from the praise and positive feedback from the blog we decided to pursue the idea of opening our own content and media publishing outfit.

Because our blog looked spectacular we got a few web redesign jobs thanks to the exposure the blog brought. We were ecstatic.

Unfortunately, we both had very little administrative and business skills we could not maintain the business and we ended up going our separate ways.

Fast forward post college, out of my first real job that I got in the TV industry ( terrible pay, overworked, and not being paid for about 5 months!) and failing to get more rewarding gigs as my creative agency start up side was cash strapped.

Rowan Atkinson looking shockedI finally took it upon myself to learn the ins and outs of WordPress. I learned how to install WordPress on a server and did some research on customising Themes. That knowledge alone and presto: I got my first web design clients and started making earning nearly as much as I did at my first job, sometimes a little more, when I get fortunate  some times I even earn three times as much as I used to in a month.

It only took a very short while for me to realise that free WordPress themes can only go so far, especially with my limited code skills.

For most WordPress designers in Malawi, all we did was get nulled themes and customise them. This is the way most WordPress designers in developing countries survive. This is also why I would like to build my own themes from scratch, to avoid the situation where I have to use pirated themes that are not only unsafe for clients but unethical. In addition, I know learning to code will also set me apart from my competition.

Which leads me to the next bit….

HOW THE LACK OF AN ONLINE PAYMENT SOLUTIONS AFFECTS DESIGNERS/DEVELOPERS IN COUNTRIES LIKE MINE

My country apparently has PayPal “available”, but the truth is you cannot get yourself a credit card to be able to join creative markets, and do online courses in order to improve your WP skills. The banks here only issue out credit cards to people who travel overseas or apparently have millions in their bank account.

City Street in Malawi

Even so, most of the bank personnel themselves know very little about credit cards and let alone online payment solutions. It is often very frustrating to talk to bank personnel concerning this. Wire transfer and Western Union is still the most popular way to make transactions for goods and services. So many services that we would like to access: plugins, features, etc related to the WP community are far from our reach. The learning and growth often stops the moment you see the “$” sign on websites offering WP solutions and themes.

THE CHALLENGES OF BEING SELF TAUGHT IN THE DEVELOPING WORLD

As I mentioned earlier, I do not have any programming background, I have always been more of a creative and artsy kind of person. Sure I have an eye for design but in order to grow, I need to learn to code PHP, and PHP hard and it is not easy to do so as premium online courses are inaccessible.

When you are in a position like mine, you are already deep in freelancing and getting a job is currently not the best option because the pay is terrible for people in your industry, and you have to keep on earning, plus make time to learn code. Getting to actually code well is a chore as you have to mind all the other obligations.

Between the time to make pitches to clients, finish up graphic design projects, deal with our current load shedding program (we only have about 5 hours of power a day on average now! ) is something I am barely managing.

Teaching myself code, HTML, CSS,  JavaScript, and PHP for WordPress is something I am determined to do and always in the process of. I try my best to make time to learn. I reckon this would have been easier if I studied a programming course in college but well, here I am.

WHAT THE WORDPRESS COMMUNITY LOOKS LIKE TO ME

I will be honest, I have only gotten in touch with the actual WordPress community only very recently. Of course I search for solutions from blogs about WordPress but never actually talked to or asked anyone from the community for a solution. The most personal interaction I have ever had with anyone from the WordPress community is when I talked to Topher when I applied to write a post for HeroPress.

I often just isolated myself from any attempt to interact at all because of the glass ceiling. There are these feelings you get; these things you tell yourself when you know you can never truly harness the power of WordPress because of your lack of a way to pay for stuff online: You could never be half as good as anyone in developed countries, you will never ever get premium support, you can never be eligible for premium support. I reckon these feelings are worse for people teaching them self how to code like me.

So when I came across a tweet from @HeroPress about a post that talked about how WordPress marginalises some, it piqued my interest. It was a post from a WordPress developer in India, and it detailed how people from developing countries could never paid the same way someone from the developed countries would for the same skills or services. I totally relate and knew right away I need to sign up to tell my story.

WordPress designers and wanna-be developers like me (who cannot access online pay systems) often feel side lined.

When it comes to classes, we stop at the freebies portion, often than not our Google Searches look like this

“Free image slider plugins for WordPress” “Free WordPress tutorials”

I wish more developers, or people with more global privilege would consider alternate ways for users who cannot pay for courses, themes, or plugins would make. We may not seem to be present, but we are there. I would love to see more WordPress tutors and developers open up ways to accommodate aspiring learners like me who cannot access plugins, courses and themes, to be able to give back and to participate at another level.

Many wannabe developers who come from situations similar to mine often shy away from participating with the WordPress community or getting deeper with WordPress because in the ways I have mentioned above, the WordPress community feels like it belongs to those only privileged enough on the internet.

WordPress has allowed me to find income I otherwise would not have any way in hopes of earning. Sure it is lower by global standards, but it makes a huge difference where I live. This is about to be my second year with WordPress, and coming across members of the community with varying backgrounds through HeroPress’ stories tells me there is hope for WordPress users like me.

I believe through sharing stories like these not only will WordPress products/services be more accessible but aspiring self-taught developers like me will also find more courage in reaching out to connect with others out there.

16 comments

  1. lohandley says:

    Wow. Just wow. And I complain about my many challenges. #shame I am very impressed with how you gained knowledge and exploded your boundaries. Woot! Woot!

  2. Dan Smart says:

    Thank you for sharing this Robert. It’s really vital that people in emerging markets such as Malawi can take part in the global economy, but it’s sad that payment methods are blocking further participation.

    I’m interested in your position because I will be moving in the next year from the UK to Swaziland, and will start to face some of the issues you talk about (e.g. load shedding, lack of online payment gateways, etc). I am hoping to be able to teach passionate young men and women web development skills so that they are able make a difference, and WordPress will be a big part of that.

    All the best for the future!

    • Robert Cheleuka says:

      Thanks for the feedback Dan! I am glad to know this is relevant to someone.

      It’s a good thing you are thinking about the mechanics, you will be best prepared that way. I can imagine how it must feel to no longer access what you already could.

      I think your plans are beautiful. A little effort goes a long way in emerging markets like ours and you will definitely be impacting someones life. I would be interested to follow your impact story when it begins.

      Thanks! 🙂

  3. Olajubu Olatubosun says:

    Well done Robert. That used to be the cash in Nigeria some couple of years back. Now the banks have stepped up their game and its really impressive.
    I believe all challenges can be overcome if we never give up and continually do the right things.

    Cheers.

    • Robert Cheleuka says:

      This is great to hear for Nigeria. I hope our banks follow suit, although I am not counting on it anytime soon.

      Truer words have never been said. We just have to keep on keeping on.

  4. This was great. I work with wordpress daily, and actually come to Malawi almost every year to put in water wells with Water Wells for Africa. I have never considered how difficult it must be to access online tools if you don’t have a credit card. If you are anywhere near Blantyre in June, I’ll be there for about a month. I’d love to see if there was any way I could help you out. Blessings. Reid

    • Robert Cheleuka says:

      Hi Reid!
      Good to hear from someone who has visited Malawi.

      I happen to be familiar with Water Wells For Africa, I believe I worked for one of your partners/beneficiaries you sometimes work with when your team visits Malawi, for WordPress and a branding projects just a few months ago. I have heard such kind words and seen your wonderful work.

      I would be glad to meet you and absolutely thankful. Thanks Reid.

      • Hi Robert, perhaps you could work out something with an american or someone where you can do a digital service or wordpress work for them, and in exchange, they will buy whatever files or plugins you need and send them to you? Could something like this work? I could perhaps be interested in such an agreement.

        Feel free to send me an email at reid@youthdownloads.com

        Reid

    • Paul Ellsworth says:

      I would wager that if you contact the WP-Dev folks they would probably come up with a really workable strategy to lift both your skills and lower the costs. At worst, start a “gofundme” for those of us here in the US to contribute to so that you can take some of the less expensive courses such as on UDEMY, etc.

      Another thought is that as a site-deveoper who has an unpaid project in process, I would still be willing to pay someone else to learn/do some of the cool bits, and then teach me what you did via a tutorial for the rest of us. Perhaps a trade could be arranged with myself and others so that we are paying your expenses. Thoughts?

      • Robert Cheleuka says:

        Thanks for the interest Paul.
        I just got a similar offer above. Otherwise, I am always interested in learning new things and experience. If you do not mind at all and this interests me.

  5. Satoshi Nakamoto says:

    MR. Robert Cheleuka,

    You have my respect! Very good work. Tough, yes. Dont give up, dont doubt yourself. Continue to push – you will find the solutions!

    I wanted to mention this payment system I found – bitcoin. Have you heard about it? bitcoin.org
    The service is free and worldwide. No banks, no waiting, no refunds, no fee. This is real.

    You can buy them from coinbase.com (usa) OR bitstamp.net (europe) OR bitfinex.com (worldwide/asia/russia)

    I’ve used it myself, it works perfect. It is becoming more popular in the USA but still very, very few people know about it. I have a feeling you will find this information useful.

    God bless!

    • Robert Cheleuka says:

      As a matter of fact I have heard of Bitcoin. Though I confess for some of the reasons mentioned in my post I thought once more here comes another innovation I will never experience.

      Are you THE Satoshi?!!
      Thank you for the kind encouraging words and interest in my blog post and the suggestion!

      Would I not have to also buy bitcoin with a credit card or something similar? How would I be able to convert/redeem bitcoin to hard currency for my locale where I am certain I have not heard anyone working with bitcoin yet?

      Are some WP service providers accepting bitcoin? This genuinely interests me Satoshi. Thanks a lot once more. I will be looking into bitcoin.

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