In March 2013, Ellen Chilemba told the Humans of New York that she was setting up a micro-finance organisation to help women in Malawi access interest-free loans. In preparing for the project, she had asked a few women in the community where it was to be established if they would want to take part in an entrepreneurship workshop that provided them with business grants afterwards. They were enthusiastic about the idea. She then organised a model training for the women. On the day of the workshop, 150 women showed up uninvited and, so, Tiwale was born.

Tiwale is based in Ntsiriza, a squatter settlement on the outskirts of Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital. Through its programmes, the organisation aims to help women in the community escape extreme poverty. In barely four years of existence, it has, to some degree, achieved its mission of empowering women to “develop sustainable ventures that transform our communities from poverty-stricken to entrepreneur-vital”.

Chilemba. Photo:
Chilemba. Photo:

Its microfinance scheme starts with a week-long entrepreneurship and leadership workshop. During this time, participants are taught business skills such as accounting and inventory. After the training, participants are divided into teams and asked to present business proposals. The most viable ideas are granted interest-free loans of about $70, to be repaid in weekly instalments over 10 weeks.

“When I first started, I was 18 years old, and I decided to take a year off for this project so there was a big fear of whether or not I was using my time wisely,” Chilemba said in an interview with Verea Blog. “I was worried about whether or not this model would actually work, which comes with any project you are starting up.”

Tiwale, which in Chichewa means “let’s glow”, has done more than it initially set out to. It has also incorporated a scholarship grant into its programme. The education grant is awarded to workshop participants interested in continuing their education, which may have been interrupted by early marriage or poverty. Due to limited funds, prospective awardees are required to have had excellent grades, with evidence of their report cards. The grant covers school fees, transportation, school equipment and a living stipend. Winners of the grant are expected to give updates on their progress in school every term. Tiwale hopes to further expand this scheme to include night classes for women in Ntsiriza.

Chilemba. Photo:
Chilemba. Photo:

Tiwale also runs a fabric design scheme for women in the community. This involves a one-week dye print training for the women, after which they produce designs that are dyed onto fabrics and sold through the organisation. The women get 30 percent of the sales, while 70 percent is reinvested in the organisation to strengthen its outreach.

“From my perspective,” Chilemba said, “combining social responsibility and entrepreneurship is a great way of ensuring sustainable models. Trying to come up with new initiatives is very important for social development.”

Chilemba, who is studying Economics at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, United States, added that her challenge now is finding a way for the organisation to be self-sustainable without her getting involved in every detail.

So far, things have worked out just fine. Tiwale has done so well that it is building a women’s development centre that would provide space for its workshops and other activities.

In 2015, Forbes named Chilemba to its list of 30 under 30 African entrepreneurs. She has received the Commonwealth Youth Award for Excellence in Development Work, the Harold Grinspoon Foundation Entrepreneurial award, the Mastercard and Ashoka Future Forward: Youth Innovations for Employment in Africa Award, among others.

Chilemba has interest in music, sculpturing, fashion, and plants, but has said that her passion lies in development work in Africa, regarding which she has noted that she has many more ideas to pursue.

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