Increasing access to work-relevant higher education in Malawi

A collaboration with five Malawian public universities increases educational opportunities for girls, young women and the disadvantaged.

 Project title 
Strengthening Higher Education Access in Malawi Activity (SHEAMA)

 Award amount 
$10,859,816

 Grant effective dates 
December 4, 2018December 3, 2022

 Principal investigator(s) 
Samuel DiGangi

 Direct sponsor 
U.S. Agency for International Development



The challenge

In Malawi, a nation of nearly 20 million in southeast Africa, more than 80,000 students graduate from secondary schools each year with no access to higher education. Multiple impediments are responsible for this lack of opportunity, including systemic societal barriers that confront females and students with disadvantages; the latter including orphans, persons with disabilities and students from rural areas served by an inadequate system of poorly resourced community schools. Similarly, institutions and stakeholders in the economy have significant capacity challenges to overcome. Malawi’s higher education system suffers from low levels of enrollment and technical capacity. University institutions and on-demand learning programs are not adequately adapted to Malawi’s market dynamics, and existing ODL centers are limited in reach. As a result, vulnerable groups do not adequately participate in higher education and are underrepresented in meaningful employment areas. For the nation, this means limited resources and a nonequitable workforce that are unable to sustain economic growth.



The approach

With support from USAID, the Strengthening Higher Education Access in Malawi Activity is increasing Malawi's skilled and employable workforce — particularly through opportunities for adolescent girls and young women — by strengthening capacity and fostering collaboration among five Malawian public universities: Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Malawi University of Science and Technology, Mzuzu University and University of Malawi; Chancellor College and The Polytechnic. Through close collaboration with the National Council for Higher Education and Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, SHEAMA secured an agreement among the university partners to codevelop and share courses and learning materials in a jointly managed system of open, distance and e-learning centers located throughout the country, thus serving more students and reducing the cost of attaining a degree. The agreement also creates mechanisms to codesign courses and programs with industry for better alignment with Malawi’s market needs. SHEAMA is conducting institutional readiness assessments; learning center instructional design workshops for faculty; scholarships for female students from disadvantaged groups to study STEM subjects; and education and employment advisory boards formed in each of six target districts.

As initial courses and programs were implemented and the University Partners began to explore new modalities enabled by SHEAMA, the arrival of COVID-19 required an abrupt shift in higher education strategies. The need to continue programmatic activities while maintaining safe protocols highlighted the value of accessible Open and Distance Learning systems and the SHEAMA model. Skills and opportunities enabled by SHEAMA strengthen the capacity of institutions to effectively adapt their coursework to best support the higher education community of Malawi.


Findings and impact

The SHEAMA activity is successfully increasing access to higher education, creating opportunities for leadership development as students move towards their goals in higher education, and building a network to provide comprehensive, continuous support to ensure ongoing student success.

Image of Susan Banda

Meet Susan Banda, a SHEAMA scholarship recipient

Qualified adolescent young girls and women as well as vulnerable young men in Malawi face many barriers to accessing higher education and safe employment. Forty-five percent of that nation’s 19.1 million people are under the age of 15, making Malawi one of the world’s youngest and fastest-growing countries. This demand leaves over 80,000 secondary school graduates each year without access to higher education. SHEAMA supported local universities’ design and delivery of a two-week mushroom production course. Among the students attending this course was Susan Banda, a 24-year-old woman from the rural Dowa district. Susan received a SHEAMA scholarship, learned from local entrepreneurs how to cultivate mushrooms and gained valuable business skills. After completing the course, Banda got a job at the refugee camp in the Dzaleka district of Malawi. There she was able to identify several shortfalls in the camp’s mushroom production project, and is hard at work revamping the program. Susan’s opportunity to participate in higher education through SHEAMA has not only impacted her future opportunities in employment but has allowed her to have a significant impact in her community.


Photo gallery

Browse photos of the SHEAMA activity to date.

  • image of men outdoors

  • Image of man on ladder outdoors

  • Individuals graduating

  • Image of woman in house

  • Image of 4 women outside

  • Image of individual working outside on house