Success stories from MLFTC’s collaboration in Malawi

July 19, 2021
Erik Ketcherside

Parents, teachers and school administrators across the U.S. are struggling to adapt to keep students engaged and on track, despite the COVID-19 pandemic — challenges that are even more daunting in developing nations.

In the southeast African nation of Malawi, a program implemented by Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University is working to meet those challenges by increasing access to distance learning opportunities for Malawian youth. The Strengthening Higher Education Access in Malawi Activity is a collaboration among ASU; Malawi’s National Council for Higher Education and Ministry of Education, Science and Technology; and five Malawian universities. Funded by the United States Agency for International Development, SHEAMA is an $10.8 million initiative to extend higher education opportunities for Malawians, increasing the nation’s skilled and employable workforce; particularly with opportunities for young women, persons with disabilities and vulnerable or disadvantaged youth. Of Malawi’s relatively young population — 45 percent of its 19 million citizens are under the age of 15 — more than 80,000 students graduate from secondary school each year without a path to higher education. 

Set in motion before the appearance of COVID-19, SHEAMA was designed to strengthen Malawian universities’ capacity for open and distance e-learning capacity both on their campuses and in community-based centers throughout the country. With the onset of the global pandemic, SHEAMA’s initial accomplishments provided the foundation for the universities’ emergency response.

SHEAMA also provides scholarships and support to university students selected from schools and community districts throughout Malawi, providing new opportunities to engage in higher education pathways. This activity has assisted the five Malawian university partners to coordinate diplomas, certificates and degrees across institutions to meet students’ needs in their local contexts.

The SHEAMA activity promotes successful students to mentor and coach new students, creating opportunities for leadership development as all students move toward their goals in higher education.


SHEAMA success stories

Jane Mabaso

Mabaso, 19, is a biomedical student at the Polytechnic school at the University of Malawi. In late January 2020 she walked from her home to a community secondary school in the Mzimba district in northern Malawi, an hour’s trip. She had been asked by the school’s headteacher to speak to students interested in going on to post-secondary education. Jane expected her audience to be students who would be graduating in 2020 or ’21, but the school’s headteacher wanted her to speak to students in forms 1 through 4, the equivalent of freshmen through seniors in the U.S. Her audience included more than 130 students.

Mabaso’s first session with the secondary students addressed applying for college. She returned the following day to talk to them about gender roles — Malawian women are far less likely to pursue college degrees — but she didn’t limit her advice to education. In addition to encouraging all of them, boys and girls, to devote equal effort to all of their subjects, she also encouraged them to help with chores at home no matter their gender.

Despite having no experience with public speaking (and admitting to some fear of it), Mabaso says, “I had lots of fun with the students, because there was good interaction during question and answers.” She hopes that some of her listeners will become not only university students themselves, but also SHEAMA-trained mentors.

Susan Banda

A SHEAMA scholarship recipient, Banda is 24, the oldest child in a family of six that operates a small-scale farming business in central Malawi. When she graduated from secondary school in 2016 her test scores qualified her for college, but she wasn’t selected for a public university, and her family was unable to afford a private education. To continue her education, Banda walked five miles to and from classes offered by the Jesuits at the Dzaleka refugee camp, earning a certificate in sustainable agriculture and nutrition, but then struggled to find a job or even an internship that would provide additional professional training.

In February 2020 she learned of a course offered by the Bunda campus of Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources and supported by SHEAMA. Banda was one of 26 students (13 of them women) offered scholarships by SHEAMA for the two-week course in mushroom production. Fungiculture is a sustainable industry in Malawi as the mushrooms can be grown on maize stover — the leaves, stalks and cobs left in a field after the corn harvest. 

Within two months of finishing the course, Banda was hired by a livelihood project at the refugee camp. The project coordinator is looking to Banda to increase their mushroom production, which fell 75 percent short of their goals last year. For the 2020 harvest, Banda supervised and coached a team of 20. Some of the money she has earned goes back to her family in Dowa to help her siblings finish school. And with her share of the harvest profits she plans to start her own mushroom production business.

Nelson Lulanga

East and slightly south of Dowa, in Chipoka, near the shore of Lake Malawi, Lulanga is establishing his own fungiculture business. In February he received a full scholarship to take the same two-week course as Banda. Through the distance learning opportunities provided by SHEAMA, he was able to reduce his time on the Bunda campus to only one week. Because the second week was made available remotely, Nelson had more time at home to care for his younger siblings; an important consideration since the death of his mother in 2016.

Lulanga earned his diploma in food nutrition and livelihood security from the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources — one of the SHEAMA partner universities — and works for a youth services agency. Like Banda, he hoped to start his own business producing mushrooms, but had no training. The course offered by SHEAMA equipped him to start a part-time business that will meet his goals of providing better for his family and creating employment opportunities for some of the young people in his town.


SHEAMA is funded by USAID, the United States Agency for International Development. The project runs through Dec. 31, 2022. Read more