With her oval-shaped glasses, gentle smile, and soft-spoken voice, Grace Maalo Chalera appears quiet and unassuming. But under that veneer is a resourceful, remarkably tough woman running two growing businesses while working fulltime as a teacher and raising three boys alone.
“From all my successes, I’ve learned I’m capable of anything I set my mind to. Life is full of ups and downs. But I’m proud of what I’ve achieved both professionally and for my boys. I’ve managed to send them to better schools thanks to my businesses, proving that women can do well, even without the hand of a man.”
Chalera grew up in rural Blantyre, in southern Malawi. Raised by a single mother of seven, as a young girl she had dreams of becoming wealthy and living a life very different to her own. But straight out of secondary school, Chalera got pregnant, forcing her to think more seriously about her future. A student with strong marks, she decided to go into education and taught primary school for 12 years before getting certified as a secondary school instructor, an occupation she has held for the last 8 years.
“One of the best days of my life was when I graduated from an institution of higher learning. I knew then I had the ability to excel in life as long as I made my best effort and worked hard.”
Chalera loved teaching but the income never seemed to be enough. She operated a primary school and started a side-business selling scones to her students. Over the years, she has looked for other ways to supplement the family income.
“I started a tailoring business in 2008. I couldn’t find a tailor who could produce the quality I wanted for school uniforms so I invested in a sewing machine and made them myself. Before I knew it, everyone wanted the same quality and I was working nights and weekends to fill the orders.”
It took Chalera about six months to realize that the demand for uniforms was seasonal. But rather than slowing down during the lulls, she took the opportunity to expand. She hired a professional tailor to make petticoats and other items in addition to the uniforms and moved the operation – Classic Tailoring – from her home to a shop.
Although business seemed to be growing, Chalera was not seeing profits increasing. She enrolled as a mentee in the GROW Movement, an NGO based in Rwanda, Malawi, and Uganda that matches local entrepreneurs with volunteer business consultants overseas. The results were immediately visible. Chalera says the most helpful advice she got from London-based Ashwin Sridhar was how to keep track of “cash in and cash out” as this helped her see where she was spending too much and getting little in return. She modified her decisions accordingly and focused only on profitable sales and as a result saw her income grow by 25%.
In the midst of working with GROW, Chalera’s life turned upside down. Her husband, a government employee, unexpectedly died following a short illness, leaving her to provide for their sons, one of whom was about to enter college. In what probably was the best decision she would make, the devastated Chalera sold the primary school, closed her shop, and moved back to rural Blantyre to take a teaching position and care for her mother who had suffered a stroke.
Rather than be overwhelmed by her circumstances, the 40-year-old looked around at the opportunities.
“To start a business, you don’t need a lot of money, you need ideas. Anything you see in front of you can be turned into a business with vision and focus. I had land so I decided to raise and sell pigs. I had manure so I sold it to farmers. I reopened my tailoring service and then expanded and opened a grill shop,” she says.
Unfortunately for this enterprising multi-tasker, there are only a limited number of hours in the day. Chalera wakes up at 4 am to do housework and prepare for the day ahead. She checks on the pigs before leaving to open the shop at 7 am. From there, she heads to school, where she runs the Humanities Department and teaches until 4.30 pm. Then it’s back to the shop to close the sales and address any issues and back home to care for the family.
“My business requires frequent supervision, so my tight schedule is often the source of great stress,” she complains. “But I guess that’s what being a successful businesswoman is all about … overcoming challenges, making money and moving forward. With focus and hard work, anything is possible.”
The demands on her time are only surpassed by financial constraints. Chalera’s business is almost entirely self-funded, more out of necessity than planning.
“Finding enough money to grow has always been a challenge. Women in Malawi often have trouble accessing loans, and if they don’t own property, they have no collateral. The banks terms are always very tough and interest rates very high. And while the situation is changing, it’s a slow going process. I once got a loan from NABW (the National Assocation of Business Women), which energized me to work harder and minimize unnecessary spending so I could pay back the loan. But otherwise, I’ve had to focus on growing my customer base by producing high quality products and keeping up with trends to be sure I am fulfilling what the customer wants, not what I think he or she needs.”
Today Chalera has four employees running both the tailoring and grilling businesses. In five years, she sees the business strong enough to support a tailoring school, offering boys and girls in her village opportunities currently not available. She also has plans for a pork market where small farmers can come and find customers.
“After losing my husband, I realized how strong I am, how focused I can be when I have an objective in mind. I’m a proud mother but I am also a woman who never gives up … at least not easily … and there is still so much I want to discover and learn.”
And clearly there is much we can learn from Grace Chalera, the enterprising Malawian who never gave up.
- Show empathy to your customers and be professional but, above all, don’t be afraid to be assertive, don’t undersell yourself.
- Think about what you want to make out of each day. Set objectives and know how you will achieve them, be focused.
- GROW taught me the importance of skills such as record keeping, management and organization, operations and customer. Take the time to develop this expertise.
- Reinvest in the business. After supporting my sons and sending my former maid to polytechnic, I used all my extra profits to hire more staff and buy new machines.