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The 21-year-old who is fighting for women’s education in Malawi


We first heard of Ellen Chilemba when writing our feature ‘7 African entrepreneurs to watch out for‘ in October last year.

Chilemba is a 21‐year‐old entrepreneur from Malawi. She is the founding director of a social enterprise called Tiwale which means “let us shine/glow” in Chichewa.

Ellen Chilemba from Overture on Vimeo.

In Malawi, girls often face the same fate: early marriage and insufficient schooling. Over time, this cycle has created a substantial population of women who are undereducated, jobless and facing extreme poverty with few options to pull themselves out. Ellen has been tackling this inequality head-on – starting when she was only 17.

Tiwale started out by teaching Malawian women how to make dye-print African fabrics. The money generated from sales has then financed female entrepreneurs and provided school grants to programme participants interested in going back to school. To date, the project has trained more than 150 women.


Trainees at Tiwale with their hand-dyed fabrics. Image: Ellen Chilemba

Ellen has featured on Forbes most promising entrepreneurs under 30, and was also spotted and featured on the popular photo-documentary project Humans of New York, gaining lots of well-deserved exposure for her venture.

“I’m setting up a micro-finance organization to help women in Malawi get interest free loans.””How old are you?””…

Posted by Humans of New York on Thursday, 14 March 2013

But since we last wrote about her, Ellen has not rested. She is now hoping to build a women’s centre in the Ntsiriza Community, Lilongwe, Malawi.

Tiwale has acquired a plot of land to construct an education centre. Funding permitting, the centre hopes to provide secondary education classes to help women attain the Malawi Secondary Certificate of Education (MSCE); as well as further vocational skills training. These options will enhance the women’s prospects greatly, and address gender inequality in the country head on.

Ellen took some time out of her busy schedule recently to answer a few questions for us. Check out the interview:

What initially inspired you to set up Tiwale?

I was frustrated at how common the idea of a girl leaving school at a young age for dowry benefits had become. Looking at our leadership, in a country with a history of government monetary scandals, I recognised that young people shouldn’t wait to try to change things. When 5 youths between 14 and 19 years old agreed to initiate Tiwale and 150 women showed up, there was no turning back – we had everything.

What’s the best part of your job?

It is the ideas that burst up once we get together. It’s amazing the strength we find in a community. Whenever our community meets, business ideas and education aspirations are always floating around. We are a positive group. My favourite moments are when a member has an idea and another member suggests a connection or supplier. Even though money is essential to sustain our opportunities, the biggest benefit is mobilising each other.

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Ellen presenting to the women at Tiwale. Image: Ellen Chilemba

What do you think to our Poverty is Sexist campaign?

It is absolutely awesome! I love it. Poverty is Sexist investigates and challenges structures such as inadequate health access, poor nutrition, environmental and legal injustice that are core determinants of a woman’s wellbeing. It is important to change social systems that inhibit access to resources for women. The call to action is powerful! I am also grateful for the opportunity to Stand with Eva.

Once your women’s centre is set up – what’s next?

We are sourcing collaborations with organisations that recycle hardware in order to get computers donated to the centre. In the future, we intend to host an annual summer code academy for 50 young women from around the country. And as the space we have purchased already has a small home in need of repairs, we would like to improve this structure and turn it into a refuge for women who are temporarily homeless.

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The Tiwale team and students. Image: Ellen Chilemba

What advice do you have for young African entrepreneurs?

Often we blame insufficient opportunities as hindering us from entrepreneurship. Poverty is our challenge to be true creative innovators. If you have passion and make sure it is infectious, small steps will become a wider vision.  We need to be at the forefront of taking care of our communities.

We can’t wait to see what’s next for Ellen, but one thing’s for sure – there’s no limit to her ambition and dedication to the women of her community – and beyond.

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