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Time for Africans to Take the Driver’s Seat

By Ellen Chilemba

Growing nationalism in the West is a call for Africans to rise up. The recent funding withdrawals from vital organizations such as the United Nations Population Fund, as well as the proposed budget cuts for long-term development aid, humanitarian food assistance, and peacekeeping missions, leave the status of the majority world in a critical condition.

Budget cuts threaten the future of millions of Africans, especially women and girls who could lose access to reproductive health care services. This will worsen maternal mortality, and with minimal access to contraceptives, we may witness more teen pregnancies and early school dropouts.

In my home country Malawi, which is among the world’s poorest countries, more than half the population lives on $0.32 or less per day. Health and education are inaccessible to many, and their provision depends on foreign funding. In Malawi, only 9 percent of girls aged 12 to 17 complete secondary schooling, and only 0.37 percent make it through university. Many women marry young to support their families. By age 19, most have an average of three children, and are widowed or abandoned. Today, countless women are living in severe poverty with little schooling and no employment opportunities.

Growing up and witnessing friends forced out of school early was heartbreaking. At first, I looked to our government to step up or to foreign-aid agencies to fully grasp the gravity of the situation. But after years of headlines highlighting government cash scandals, and interactions with foreign-agency workers who were primarily white and clueless about local issues, I lost hope in the ability of these institutions to solve problems.

I believe it is we, the common people, who must contribute to improving the status of the continent. Individuals hold the key to overcoming the challenges our societies face.

I started to assume my role when I turned 18. I applied for a grant from the Global Changemakers to offer business training sessions to women. I was given $1,000, and I took a year off from school to launch my project. At home, I was ridiculed for leaving school and thinking I could tackle social problems that many people much more experienced than I had not succeeded in eliminating.

But I was stubborn. I proceeded with my plan, and gathered a team of five young people who had just completed secondary school. Together, we designed a workshop program on business education, leadership, and entrepreneurship for women in a poor community called Mtsiliza in Lilongwe, Malawi. In 2012, we held our first two-week training camp involving hands-on workshops on starting a business. These included the need-finding process, where one observes their surroundings and notes unserved or underserved products or services. This was followed by prototyping classes, where participants practiced designing products or services based on observed community needs.

After our first summer project that year, 12 of the women in our workshops started their own businesses. The businesses were small scale, with starting capitals ranging between $50 and $70. Most were focused on food distribution,  selling chickens, fish, or rice. Five years later, the project is a full-time community-based organization called Tiwale. We offer education and skills workshops, micro-loans, and school grants to women in Mtsiliza. We have trained 150 women, 40 of whom have started businesses. Sixty-six of the women are employed by Tiwale itself, where they use the skills they learned in tie-dyeing or sewing. We are currently building a women’s center to expand our efforts to support 300-500 women annually. The facility houses a community library and computer lab, and it will offer refuge for women who find themselves temporarily homeless.

I started Tiwale with no prior experience in development work. I was motivated by the little exposure I had to ideas of social innovation through an entrepreneurship training conference for young people. Once I started Tiwale, each step felt natural as I took on my responsibility for my role in building Africa.

Every individual must work toward this goal, even if they can only make a minor commitment. We have to practice our heritage of Ubuntu or, as we say in Chichewa, Umunthu—I am, because of you. It’s time to embrace our principles of looking out for each other, sharing, and only being whole if all are whole.

As citizens, we must volunteer in our communities, share our skills and knowledge with each other, and inject our voices into political debate in order to elect responsible leaders. We need to support the less privileged by challenging discriminatory culture, industries, and institutions. Entrepreneurs should follow ethical profit or communal business models.

Governments need to prioritize health and education spending. Countries where education has been a priority, such as Ghana, which spends 8 percent of GDP on education, and Cote d’Ivoire, which spends a stunning 22 percent, are among five of the fastest growing economies in the world. Furthermore, we need to revamp our curriculums to cater to present economic challenges and opportunities. It’s time we start educating people not on how to get employed, but on how to create jobs. Curriculums must be built to facilitate innovation in the face of climate change, unemployment, and withdrawal of foreign aid, as well as harness the creativity of a booming internet industry.

Global allies—international organizations—should take a multidimensional approach. As we learned at Tiwale, it is difficult for many women to participate in education programs if they are not earning income elsewhere. Furthermore, poverty alleviation cannot be tackled without also considering mental and physical health, or climate change. Rather than establishing multiple global organizations, which at times work in isolation of one another or even at cross-purposes, we should look to fill the operational gaps within existing organizations. And sharing knowledge across institutions can help avoid repeating the same mistakes.

Mentorship is critical to add momentum to positive change. Foreign organizations, recognizing that their presence in our countries is only temporary, should empower their own employees and inspire local leadership, instead of just reaching a target group through specific programs. We also need more courses that mentor and support young people and encourage them to take up careers in social innovation. Many such programs have emerged, but financing remains a barrier. Effective programs offer full scholarships or travel and visa expenses when necessary; providing education without making it accessible through financial support is a futile endeavor.

Women are the most underserved population, so we need to prioritize them in all our initiatives and mentorship. The status of women on the continent should not be dependent on U.S. elections.

Africans know the motherland; we know the road. It’s time for us to take the driver’s seat.

*****

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Ellen Chilemba is the founder and executive director of Tiwale, a community organization that supports Malawian women by providing economic and education opportunities. She has been named Glamour Magazine’s 2017 College Woman of the Year, one of Forbes’ Africa 30 Under 30, an Ashoka Future Forward Winner, a Global Citizen Youth Advocate, a Commonwealth Youth Awardee for Excellence in Development Work, a Powell Emerging Leader, and a We Are Family Foundation Global Teen Leader. 

[Photo courtesy of Swathi Sridharan (ICRISAT)

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