Inspiration comes in many guises. It can be in the form of a book, a life-changing event or something innocuous as a conversation. For many, inspiration can flow from an encounter with a role model. African Leadership Academy’s Distinguished Guest Speaker program aims to do just that, and – if feedback from students after its November program offering is anything to go by – clearly succeeded when it gave the stage to alumni and award-winning activist and social entrepreneur, Ellen Chilemba.
“When I was at ALA, we were always thinking of coming up with solutions, and I was worried that over time that excitement would fade. So it’s really great that students are still focused on that. The energy on the evening was so exciting. I’ve been on a high wave from it and am getting a lot of emails and DMs from students on ideas and mentorship, and particularly on advice regarding the start-up process,” says Ellen.
Her riveting account of the highs and lows of life on campus, the challenges of meeting expectations – both real and imagined – and facing disappointments by setting new goals resonated with students, largely because she unflinchingly shared how she managed to triumph over adversity.
Ellen hails from Malawi and joined the Academy at 16, graduating with the Class of 2010 two years later. She had set the bar high in her university selection and, disappointed at not having been accepted by those she had earmarked, she returned to Malawi to take a gap year and recalibrate.
“Those days were extremely difficult for me – overall, it was very depressing, and I wasn’t actively thinking about what I was doing in terms of dealing with it, but what helped me was working with the things that I was in control of.”
With only her passion for social development guiding her, Ellen was driven to spearheading change. “At ALA, I was taught that we should no longer be dependent on government and simply accept things as is; we were taught to assume a new sense of responsibility and power – that we can make the change we want to see,” she explains. Frustrated with the status quo of women in her home country, particularly the lack of formal schooling among females and the prevalence of child marriage, she set about piloting a microfinance program that would support young women to start businesses and return to school. With only five volunteers and meagre funding, she founded Tiwale (‘Let’s Glow’) in Mtsiriza, a squatter settlement outside of Lilongwe.
The initiative has overcome several challenges and undergone various iterations to become a force on the country’s entrepreneurial and women’s development map. With a staff complement of 12, Tiwale uplifts local women with micro-loans, vocation skills training, education grants and leadership workshops. To date, the organization has helped over 250 women: 40 women have launched their own businesses, and many more have been upskilled in the art of tie-dying and sewing, with Tiwale tapestries and totes available for sale globally. It has also launched Teawale, an inspiring blog post by African women for African women. The organisation’s crowning has been the launch of its very own centre, built with the winnings Ellen received as the 2017 Glamour Magazine’s College Woman of the Year.
She has also been recognized as a Global Changemaker, is listed in Forbes’ Africa’s 30 Under 30, is an Ashoka Future Forward Winner, a Commonwealth Youth Awardee for Excellence in Development Work, a Powell Emerging Leader Awardee, Grinspoon Entrepreneur and We Are Family Foundation’s Global Teen Leaders.
In August, Ellen graduated from Mount Holyoke College in the US with a bachelor’s degree in Economics and a curriculum vitae that celebrates a host of achievements as a changemaker, including panelist and speaker at various distinguished global conferences, summits and events, including United Nations General Assembly: Universal Health Coverage Forum (Speaker); World Economic Forum Davos 2018 Wonder Women Panelist; One Young World Peace Ambassador (Malawi Delegate), and more.
Ellen’s work has her flying between South Africa, Malawi and the US: while still overseeing fundraising and marketing for Tiwale (which is now being run on the ground by her mother), she is mostly based in Johannesburg as a consultant.
Coming home to Africa, she says, has intensified the desire to stimulate and promote change on the continent. “Malawi has faced extremely corrupt leadership, extended party terms and leadership being based on nepotism, and there was a sense of loss of hope amongst myself and my peers. We want to get out of it, out of a place that is forsaken. The change has been where I see challenges now, but know we can innovate in this way – there is no longer that passivity. I want to know what the news is, what people are thinking about the country, what’s happening in agriculture. I want to know ways we can move forward,” she determines.