For International Women’s Day 2020, AidEx shares the story of Chmba, an entrepreneur from Malawi who founded and directs the social enterprise Tiwale at the age of 17 to help women and girls in her community escape poverty and child marriage with microfinance and education programmes.
We call Ellen Chilemba, preferably named Chmba, just as she is coming out of a panel discussion at the SoCreative Hubs Summit in Harare - an event bringing together social entrepreneurs using creative arts to help society. She has been discussing ideas about how to encourage feminism in communities without being too imposing, by fostering understanding that feminism means equal rights, not just women’s rights.
Chmba’s accreditations are impressive. She was named Glamour Magazine’s College Woman of the Year, Forbes’ Africa 30 Under 30, Ashoka Future Forward Winner, Gates Foundation Goalkeeper, Global Citizen Youth Advocate, One Young World Ambassador, Commonwealth Awardee for Excellence in Development and Powell Emerging Leader. Behind these titles is a humble 25-year-old who repeatedly apologies for slightly delaying the interview because the talk overran.
Born in 1994, Chmba grew up on the cusp of transition from dictatorship to a multiparty democracy. She describes the atmosphere of hope that lay before Malawi for a future of positive economic development. But as we entered the millennium poverty continued, there were droughts and subsequent hunger crises, with which a sense of hopelessness prevailed.
It would be the surge in social entrepreneurs around the world making a difference irrespective of state fragility which would inspire Chmba to found Tiwale. One such person was the Nobel Peace Prize pioneer of microfinance, Muhammed Yunus. “I realised we don’t always have to rely on political leadership, individuals can make a huge difference. If Dr Yunus could do it in Bangladesh, then so could I.”
It was 2012 in Mtsiriza where Chmba met a 19-year-old mother of three who expressed an interest in starting a business. She told the woman to find nine others who shared this sentiment. At the following meeting, a line of 150 women interested in microfinance awaited to hear more. Chmba then galvanised young Malawians who had studied business to help deliver the training and with the village chief and his wife on board came the establishment of Tiwale.
The social enterprise’s microfinance programme was successful in the first two years, but Chmba wanted to do more. Being a young organisation made it difficult to access traditional funding, so Tiwale gathered ideas from the community on how to creatively fundraise to expand. One woman who had learnt how to tie dye in Tanzania suggested she could teach others how to do it.
The tie dye fabrics were popular with students who used them as tapestry to decorate their dorm rooms, whilst the traditional prints like the spider pattern and sun helped revive the clothing production industry in Malawi which had been skewed by second-hand donations from the U.S.
The initiative was a success. The money made from the fabrics enabled Tiwale to buy land and build a women’s centre in December 2017.
To date, 250 women have been through the organisation’s microfinance programme. 40 have started a business, 66 have gone through their secondary education class, six have won scholarships to go back to school, 60 women currently work in the tie dye workshops fashion designing or sewing. This year the first woman to graduate from secondary school is heading to university.
Chmba expresses the frequent struggle with donors who argue these numbers are not high enough considering how long the organisation has existed. But she argues what makes Tiwale special is it is not numbers, but the healing it offers with its long-term growth programmes.
“Women we work with grow up being taught from age 12 they will be married and live a life answering to their husbands. We teach these girls they can have dreams, ambitions and futures. They are not just another statistic.”
The success of Tiwale goes beyond quantitative data. Eight years on, Chmba is proud to remark on its achievement of overcoming the cultural mistrust towards social impact organisations on a community level. She explains the issue with international NGOs which come to Malawi with short-term project funding are consequently fickle, which hinders sustainable change and ultimately faith in organisations.
“As an organisation that has been around for so long, we are a part of the community, connected with the leaders. We have established the relationship and trust needed to introduce ideas and initiatives.”
Leading a social enterprise as a young person has been met with cynicism by people’s presumption that youth equates to inexperience, Chmba explains. “This might be true, but it didn’t limit my ambitions with Tiwale.” She argues working only based on what you know is limiting: “I had the ability to be experimental – lack of knowledge can be a blessing because you are able to be more open minded.”
In Malawi, only six percent of girls graduate from high school each year, with just 2.9 percent going on to seek post-secondary education studies. Child marriage is still a prominent cultural practice, with more than 40 percent of girls married by the time they are 18. The attendance of young women aged 12 was discouraged by families who believed they should get married as opposed to educated.
From when Tiwale was set up in 2012, Chmba describes the exciting changes in the landscape for women’s equality. “Since gaining a woman president in 2013 - the second in Africa - we are beginning to hear more women aspiring to become President and work in politics.
These conversations are happening across the continent as more opportunities arise, owed to years of activism by women’s groups and access to organising through social media.” She cites a protest march against gender-based violence led by the Young Feminist Network Malawi that was organised following a sexual harassment incident last month.
Chmba suggests conflict in the world mostly stems from misunderstood intentions and there is a strong sense of struggle to remain privileged and relevant in today’s world. People confuse empowering another at their own cost.
On International Women’s Day this year, Chmba wants to challenge all notions that women’s rights have been exhausted, by urging people to try and put themselves in the shoes of the world’s poorest women and question whether feminism has reached them.
Ubuntu is a saying in Malawi meaning ‘I am because you are’. It engenders the idea that in order to create community values, we require a shared sense of humanity. “By saying we need to empower women, we are not saying men are useless. We are placing humanity on an equal level to improve overall growth, not one group alone.”
With Tiwale, Chmba is working on continuing to build the organisation’s programmes, scholarships and dreams of building a safe shelter for women facing homelessness and abuse. As a DJ and Producer on top of her social entrepreneurship, she is dismayed by the three percent representation of women in the music industry worldwide and wants to see more training programmes encouraging women in the music scene.
Speaking to this young entrepreneur from Malawi, it is difficult to believe she comes from one of the world’s poorest countries, which ranks 172 out of 180 on the Humanitarian Development Index. Chmba’s achievements with Tiwale and beyond demonstrate the extent to which scarce opportunities do not reflect talent. The appetite for equity will only be satisfied with gender equality, which is why we must ardently promote the message that women’s rights are not a zero-sum game. It is a win-win.