By Mareike Lummer
Education is a human right. Nevertheless, even basic school education is considered a privilege in many countries. Therefore, career opportunities highly depend on factors like where people live or how much money they have. In some cases, even gender plays a tremendous role.
Malawi is a small country in eastern Africa. Most of its inhabitants work in the agricultural sector and more than half of Malawi’s population needs the support of international NGOs, in order to provide enough food for their families. Although there is in fact gender equality by law, it is not put into practice. Most young women do not have the opportunity to attend school, work and earn their own money. Instead, they are married to older men before they even turn eighteen. While the men go to work, their wives must then take care of the household and raise the children. They do not have the chance to lead a self-determined, independent life characterized by proper education, a job and a regular income.
After spending two years in a suburb of Malawi’s capital Lilongwe, the German student, Jana Piske, wanted to help. She was fascinated by the friendly people, who seemed to be very motivated, despite their poverty and lack of education. Together with her Malawian friend, Alexander Kumcheza, she founded “Taste of Malawi e.V.” in 2015. The project mainly focuses on female empowerment by offering local female tailors a training program, deepening their business knowledge and improving their tailoring skills. The goal of the project is to enable Malawian women to establish their own business. Shortly after the project was founded, a small house was built on a lot of land in a suburb of Lilongwe. The building contains classrooms and along with it, diverse types of sewing machines, acquired through donations. Up to 15 women can participate in the program where they learn about advanced sewing techniques in tailoring classes. The handmade products, which are being produced during the training sessions include dresses, headbands or skirts. These products can be purchased online. The money is then fully refunded and used for covering the projects’ running expenses. In addition to that, the women are paid an appropriate salary, half of which they receive on a regular basis, while the other half is saved as start-up capital for their future businesses. For most of the women, earning money is a whole new experience. Never have they even dared to dream about the possibility of being financially independent. They highly appreciate the opportunity to design and produce fashion, using their imagination and skills to further develop and eventually create something of their own.
It is not easy to run a business – especially in a country that is not as ‘developed’ as the western world. Therefore, the project also offers business workshops, teaching the women how to establish their business in a proper and safe way. Besides its focus on tailoring, the project functions as a safe and creative space for women to chat and network. “Taste of Malawi e.V.” enables them to meet other women who are in a comparable situation. It is thereby a place for culture, communication and creativity.
The noticeable and cultural impact that “Taste of Malawi e.V.” has, is even higher. The cotton, called Chitenje, which is used for each product is traditionally African. With its colorful patterns, it conveys the African spirit and in addition, it is sustainable, elastic and long lasting. That is why Chitenje plays a huge role in the daily lives of Malawians. It can be used for carrying babies, clothing as well as for carpets and blankets. The tailors learn something, which is completely new to them using familiar materials. However, not only the usage of African cotton is characteristic for the project. Also, the production is based on the rules and restrictions of the “Slow Fashion” movement. This movement stands for fair payment, humane working hours, a reasonable production chain and sustainability. In that context, the women are taught to make optimal use of leftover cotton in order to reduce waste to a minimum. “Slow Fashion” is therefore one of the key elements and the organization is devoted to spread the message whenever possible.
“Especially young people need to understand that each little contribution can in fact have an impact on the overall situation. Baby steps do also count. Why not spend a little more on a t-shirt, which in return is sustainable and will last way longer? We cannot keep on ignoring the world that we live in. The exploitation of workers in the fashion industry needs to be another turning point. It should not be supported.” – Jana Piske, Founder.
By attending festivals and events, the organization can educate people about the “Slow Fashion” movement and create points of contact between Malawi and Germany.
“The support that “Taste of Malawi e.V.” has been receiving ever since its establishment is incredible.”, says Jana Piske.
Besides many donations which are vital to the project, “Taste of Malawi e.V.” recently won a Scholarship by “StartSocial”. It is a German program supported by chancellor Angela Merkel that supports and guides young social projects. Since the project consists of 10 students in Europe and 3 employees in Malawi, the scholarship was beneficial to everyone in terms of how to improve internal and external communication. As the digital team does not have the chance to overcome the distance and meet up regularly, video calls have become an important ritual. During monthly Skype meetings, everyone has the chance to learn from one another and update the other team members. “Taste of Malawi e.V.” is a great example of what can be achieved when students from all over the globe work together. Not only can they experience how an international NGO works, , they are also able to help women in Malawi pursue their dream of independence through the production of sustainable, environmentally friendly clothing.
About the Author
Mareike Lummer is a student of American studies and linguistics at the University of Dusseldorf, Germany. Her responsibilities at “Taste of Malawi e.V.” include press releases and PR strategies. Besides her social engagement, she works in the field of international communication and as a freelance writer.