This story is part of Counterpart’s 2018 Partner Highlight series from Malawi

On a bright, sunny afternoon, we make our way from Zomba to Mangochi, a small township on the shores of Lake Malawi. There, I meet with Joseph Makwakwa, Executive Director of the Community Initiative for Self Reliance (CISER) and his team in their new offices.  CISER initially started as a community-based organization (a legal designation for an organization too small in scale and scope to be considered a non-governmental organization or NGO) focused on education, with limited funding from the European Union. In 2011, CISER had grown to the point where they switched to local NGO status, but had no true plan or organizational structure in place until their partnership with Counterpart in 2015.

Counterpart supports CISER through a capacity building partnership that tailors training and services to CISER’s specific strengths and weaknesses. Over the past four years, Counterpart has helped to review and revamp CISER’s five-year strategic plan, overhauled their project management, impact tracking, and financial management processes, and led communications workshops around specific topics, like how to write success stories. Joseph and his staff tell me that the most beneficial part of the partnership was a series of grant writing workshops that Counterpart hosted; this training was a turning point for CISER, who almost overnight began writing more compelling proposals and winning funding from new donors that were never in reach before.

As Joseph explains to me, this partnership has helped CISER grow and gain confidence in their own abilities, which in turn has made local communities, government representatives, and donors more confident in their abilities as well. Since the inception of our partnership, CISER has grown from 12 to 35 staff members and recently moved into a larger, centrally located office, complete with a community library.

Today, CISER works with seven districts across the Mangochi region to improve community access to education, health, women’s rights, HIV/AIDS services, and environmental protection. They take a holistic approach to all their projects, educating local communities about how things like economic development and environmental protection can impact one another.

Despite this rapid growth, it’s clear that Joseph has worked hard to keep CISER true to its initial commitment to local partnership and building relationships at the community level. He tells me excitedly about the women and families that CISER is supporting throughout Mangochi, about the ways that their lives have changed as CISER has grown. “Let me show you,” he says proudly, and walks me back outside.

Racing against the setting sun, we jump back in our cars and drive over to an empty lot behind a row of small shops off the main street in Mangochi. There, sitting on vibrant blankets that shine against the dusty red-brown of the dirt so common in Malawi during the dry season, were a group of women. A few with babies in their laps, they laugh and sing and catch up on the gossip of the week. When we arrive, they jump up, all smiles, and greet Joseph with handshakes and a sort of shy reverence. As Joseph jokes and makes introductions, however, it’s clear that they all consider each other to be close friends.

The group of women – together known as the Tithandizane (Helping Each Other in Chichewa) Women’s Group – make up one of the ten local village savings and loans (VSL) groups that CISER supports. The idea behind a VSL group is simple: participants invest a modest amount of money to “buy in” and make a monthly contribution. The group pools their money and partners with a local financial institution, like a bank, on a short-term investment. At the end of the designated term, the members get back their initial investment, plus dividends and interest. Individually, the group members would be too risky or lack the capital to do these kind of business deals, but together, they have power. In the case of Tithandizane, the benefit is even greater: the group benefits from coaching and guidance from CISER and Counterpart.

The Tithandizane group was first formed in July 2017. The initial group of women was originally brought together by a local Chief, who helped identify women running or with an interest in running small businesses and introduced them to CISER. The original group was made up of 17 women, half of whom are married, and most of whom have children. In this group, as in most of the region surrounding Lake Malawi, these women are often referred to as “fishing widows:” the wives of fisherman who are gone most of the year, they are left to provide for themselves and their families alone. These women formed the group and invested their meager savings as a way to build a better life for their families – something that wouldn’t have been possible without the support and guidance of Joseph and his team at CISER educating these women about the possibilities of a group like this.

In Tithandizane, the women are required to come into the group with more than just the initial buy-in; they must have goals and a plan for the future. Some women envision building a home for their families, some want to purchase land or houses to use for rental income, others want to start small businesses, and still others simply want to feed their children and fund their educations. After just the first round of funding, these women are well on their way to making these dreams a reality.

One woman I spoke to used her profits from the first round of investment to start a small business where she dries locally-caught fish and – with business coaching from CISER and Counterpart – sells her product throughout Malawi, as well as in the neighboring countries of Mozambique and South Africa. All 17 women have re-invested in the group after the initial round, increasing the buy-in from 1000 kwacha to 5000 kwacha after seeing the return on their investment. Together, they have decided to invest back into the fish business, helping their neighbor to expand further and working with CISER and another development group to partner with supermarkets to sell their dried fish to even more people.

I asked one of the group members, Prusca Kenneth, what her goal was and why she wanted to be a part of the group. Gesturing to her partners and friends, she paused a minute to think before answering: “We want to achieve something and support other women in Mangochi who are suffering. We want to support orphans who have basic needs and need help with school fees. I want to help them build better lives. Together, we can do that.”


With generous support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Counterpart International is working with more than 30 partners across Malawi, providing training and capacity building to strengthen local organizations and their ability to partner with communities and government leaders. Together with our partners, we strive to build a stronger Malawi by improving access to education, health care, environmental protection, and more. In the Fall of 2018, Alexandra Frank, Counterpart’s Senior Communications Manager, traveled to Malawi to visit a variety of our Supporting the Efforts of Partners program sites, and hear stories from program beneficiaries and partners throughout Malawi.

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