Starting your own social enterprise as a teenager may have its challenges, but Malawi-born Ellen Chilemba says careful listening and involving the community can yield positive results

Ellen Chilemba is something of a powerhouse. Recently named by Forbes as one of Africa’s most promising entrepreneurs under the age of 30, this young Malawian’s vision is to help women escape poverty and break cycles of child marriage and squandered potential.

Chilemba founded Tiwale, a for-profit social enterprise, in Malawi when she was just 17. In the past three years, the organisation has supported 150 women with business and vocational training, and helped 40 women start businesses or find employment. Recently, Tiwale secured its first dedicated office space. It now has room for a classroom and workshop for a new fabric design initiative that generates income for the programme’s participants and helps sustain the organisation at the same time.


Through Tiwale, Chilemba helps empower women in Malawi by providing economic opportunities. Image: Rozzcoe

But Chilemba isn’t stopping there. Tiwale wants to truly empower its female participants. That means taking a deeper look at assumptions, listening closely to the women and evolving the organisation’s approach as it goes. Chilemba explains what she has learned so far, and how this will spur Tiwale’s next phase.

“Sometimes, what you think is the problem isn’t what the actual challenge is,” says Chilemba. “I’ve learned to play the role of listener more and more.”

I’ve learned to play the role of listener more and more

When Tiwale first launched, it first focused on micro-lending. It prioritised young women in poverty who were still in school, providing them with the opportunity to pay for their own education. However, Chilemba soon realised that they hadn’t considered the time limitations of the women involved.

“Something I missed at that time was the pressures that most of these students have to deal with,” Chilemba says. “They leave early for school, come back late, then help around the house — it just wasn’t feasible for them to run a business as well.”

Now, Tiwale works primarily with women who are unemployed and homemakers. With vocational training and an increase in income through Tiwale’s support, the women are able to afford school fees for themselves and their children.

Tiwale - school

Chilemba realised that women in rural African communities had limited access to schools because of time restrictions and cost. Image: Tiwale 

Tiwale holds regular feedback sessions, and half of the board is made up of programme participants who also meet together, separate from staff, in order to be able to comfortably voice their opinions and share any concerns.

“We’ve had some people from the community oppose what we’re doing,” Chilemba says. “Traditionally, women are seen as people who should be in the home. And when an organisation like Tiwale comes in and suggests that women should have an education and can make an income, it can be seen as threatening.

“[We saw that] incorporating the local community into our activities brings in this trust,” she explains. “And involving everyone encourages our participants as well. There’s a much bigger pride with being associated with us, compared to before.”

As a young social entrepreneur, Chilemba reminds herself that receiving feedback is part of the territory. “You have to allow yourself the space to be corrected,” she says. “Eventually, it all works out.”

Tiwale group 2

Chilemba (far left) has seen Tiwale grow from selling fabrics online to international markets to women developing fabrics to sell at local markets. Image: Tiwale

“Sometimes I like to go back to the first posts on Tiwale’s Facebook page – I think, ‘wow this was ridiculous,’” says Chilemba in good humour. “The point is, Tiwale came together slowly, with baby steps. With any organisation that you’re looking up to, don’t forget that they had their baby steps too.”

This is a condensed version of a feature first published by Forbes. Read the full article here.

Main image: Rozzcoe