Ellen Chilemba is a young entrepreneur born and raised in Malawi. She is the founder of Tiwale Project and is very passionate about women’s empowerment and development work. To date, her project has helped 33 women successfully start sustainable businesses and is sponsoring two young women’s education.
On the side, Ellen is a student pursuing an Art Studio and International Relations double major starting this fall at Mount Holyoke College. Looking at the future, Ellen envisions a massive endless web of female African entrepreneurs tangled in a mess of business triumph, education success, artistic talent and overwhelming confidence.
Rise Africa received the opportunity to talk to Ellen, here’s what she had to say.
Rise Africa: Who is Ellen Chilemba?
Ellen Chilemba: Most people know me as the entrepreneur girl on HONY who started Tiwale. Entrepreneur fits in my self-description but I would also add Malawian, proud African, spoken word artist, clay sculptor, Afrofeminist, fashion-craze child, music lover and 19 year old still on the journey of self-discovery.
Rise Africa: In a few words, what is Tiwale?
Ellen Chilemba: Tiwale is a community and platform for young women to empower themselves. We empower our participants through a business challenge program where we teach them to come up with business plans then we loan the best business plans interest-free capital. This program has been successful that we are now starting to incorporate more avenues of empowerment.
Rise Africa: What inspired you to start Tiwale?
Ellen Chilemba: I grew up in Malawi which is a poor, developing country, so poverty was never foreign to me. I was fortunate to have parents who could afford to provide me with basic needs and an education, but I was not blind to girls my age who did not have such an opportunity. And so growing up in Malawi I encountered many young women my age some even as young as 13, jump into early marriages as their families could no longer afford to provide them with a home and an education. On top of that one thing that hurt me the most was seeing that after getting married most of these young women just became idle housewives taking care of their children. I sought ways that I help these young women empower themselves and eventually finish their education.
Rise Africa: Why and how did you come up with Tiwale?
Ellen Chilemba: After studying in entrepreneurship and leadership I saw how an entrepreneurial mindset shows you opportunities for innovation, and in leadership I learnt of the importance of self-belief and confidence. And so in drafting Tiwale, the first thing was to change the mindset that most of our participants had. Most participants came in hopeless about their future, without goals. And so in our program ‘learning week’ we focus on teaching them business skills and ways of seeing opportunities but also self-empowerment lessons that create strong proactive women.
Rise Africa: Where do you get funding from to loan money to the women you train?
Ellen Chilemba: The first grant was the Global Changemakers and British Council. In 2011, I attended their Global Youth Summit. Once you attend this summit you become eligible to apply for a grant to start a project. After a successful pilot project last year, it was easier to fundraise for more funds this year, and we also received a grant from the We Are Family Foundation.
Rise Africa: What have been your biggest achievements so far?
Ellen Chilemba: Well, Tiwale is definitely the biggest. It is a dream come true to have now helped 33 women successfully start businesses that have been a success thus far- it seemed like insanity at first. Attending and graduating from the African Leadership Academy- it’s an amazing place. Also, I have always wanted to study or do some kind of art, I never had that option in high school and so during my gap year, I studied Ceramics and completed a few projects. I am now going to pursue a double major in International relations and art studio. Being one of the recipients of the Commonwealth Youth Award in Development Work is also another big achievement of mine.
Rise Africa: You have won a couple of awards for Tiwale and participated in prestigious programs and conferences. Tell us about these.
Ellen Chilemba: I was one of the 60 selected to attend the Global ChangeMakers Global Youth Summit 2011. I received the Commonwealth Youth Award for Development Work. I was one of the 30 teens selected for the We Are Family Foundation Three Dot Dash Summit 2011. I was ‘Young Entrepreneur of the Week’ for International Youth Forum. Finally, I was a speaker at the Global Food Symposium hosted by the Chicago Council.
Rise Africa: What challenges have you faced as a young leader of a start-up? How have your age, gender and race/ethnicity been factors in your leadership of Tiwale?
Ellen Chilemba: The first challenge was convincing myself that this dream is really happening–you are launching a start-up at age 17. It meant stepping up and learning the necessary bits which at times seemed too much and I felt I would fail as I ‘lacked the maturity.’ Also, when I had meetings with community leaders or other interested parties the first few times; they do look at me crazy. There have been times when people asked me to bring an older person they could deal with. As for my gender, I have noted that the male volunteers are treated with more respect even when they are at a much lower position in the organization setting. As for race, last year during our first program we had German ARD TV film some of the program activities. The video guys were white men. When our participants saw these guys they did not believe that I was the founder of the project. They thought the video guys were the founders.
Rise Africa: Tell us more about your future dreams for Tiwale. Where do you see Tiwale, in say 5 years?
Ellen Chilemba: In five years, Tiwale will be a much larger organization with at least 300 women involved. I see our participants in universities beaming about an upcoming graduating, other participant featured in fashion magazines for their promotion of Afrowear and others as rising entrepreneurs for their grown businesses. We want to have our own Tiwale farm, a gallery featuring our participants work, and we also want see other young women replicating Tiwale in different communities.
Rise Africa: What lessons would you share with other young Africans and other young women from your leadership experience in Tiwale?
Ellen Chilemba: A vision always helps. Always have something to look forward at. It guides you when making decisions. Also, make sure that your team shares this vision so you are all on the right track. To fellow Africans, the problems on our continent are opportunities for us to venture into an exciting industrial revolution.
Rise Africa: Are there any Tiwale activities coming up soon you would like to tell our readers about?
Ellen Chilemba: Yes, once the repayments are done, Tiwale is looking into more opportunities for our participants. We are sponsoring two brilliant young women to return to school. We want to host design and sewing lessons to encourage Tiwale women to produce traditional clothing and the like. We are setting up a poultry farm that will be run by different groups of women from our program.
Rise Africa: Anything else you would like to tell our readers?
Ellen Chilemba: Mandiba was right, it does seem impossible until it’s done. When I started putting this project in place, it all just seemed too much, but once you take things step by step, they start to fall into place. Do not be let down by failure-it is more than normal.
Rise Africa, thank you for this opportunity to share my story. Thank you for this platform of Afro-empowerment, I adore your work and I am much honored to be featured.