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From Beggars to Bosses: Enabling 1000 Orphans and Vulnerable Children in Central Malawi To Become Successful Entrepreneurs

Beggars to Bosses supports orphans and vulnerable children in Central Malawi to become healthy and self-sufficient entrepreneurs

Photo of Suzanne Morrison
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What problem does the idea help to solve and how does your solution work? (2,000 characters maximum)

Beggars to Bosses helps orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) displaced due to parental illness, death, poverty, or abandonment, become entrepreneurs. The program will impact 1000 children in central Malawi, most from child-headed households. Malawi has 1.8 million single or double orphans and 12,000 youth in child-headed households. This is due primarily to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, whereby 39,000 people are infected and 17,000 die each year. With its struggling economy, marked by 5.7% unemployment and 9% inflation, Malawi is one of the world’s poorest countries; 70% of citizens live on less than $1.90 per day. Environmental challenges ranging from drought to heavy rainfall, have led to poor crop yields and food shortages. In 2019, Cyclone Idai killed over 1,000 and left 923,000 people, nearly half children, in need of urgent assistance. These crises strain the primary system of orphan care – community-based care with the extended family. A fifth of household’s already care for OVC, stretching these networks to the point where they often default on traditional orphan-care responsibilities, leaving children to live on the street, as child laborers, or in child-headed households. Beggars to Bosses is a three-year community-based program for OVC to become entrepreneurs. Using an empowerment model, social workers from affiliate, Zoe Malawi, work with local leaders to identify and enroll OVC in empowerment groups. Their lives are stabilized through improved nutrition, housing, sanitation and health care and youth start an income-generating activity (IGA) which covers their basic needs. They enroll in school, a vocational or apprenticeship program, learn business skills, and receive start-up support. Cooperative business ventures within the empowerment group increase their income and provide affordable financing options. Youth soon expand their IGA or establish another business. By year 3, they've moved from a place of need and dependence, to a sustainable life.

Geography of focus (500 characters)

Malawi is a small impoverished country in of 18 million people, more than half under the age of 18 years. OVC make up 16.7% of this population. With a 9.6% HIV prevalence rate among adults, and 1 million living with HIV/AIDS, the number of OVC will only increase. The program will expand in the Dowa district of Malawi, selected due to the many OVC, high poverty, ability of staff to access children, readiness of villages to participate, and relationships with local and regional partners.

Building Bridges: What bridge does your idea build between people on the move and neighbors towards a shared future of stability and promise? (500 characters)

This program is a“bridge” for orphans and vulnerable children to move from poverty, displacement and despair, to a future in which they are skilled entrepreneurs and contributing members of a community. It is also a bridge for impoverished communities to become more prosperous as the youths' entrepreneurial activities benefit both the children and communities from expanded services, better access to food and other resources, more jobs, and increased economic activity.

What human need is your idea solving for? (1,000 characters)

This program helps youth discover the joy, hope and dignity that comes from being able to live a healthy life, one in which they can sustain themselves and their siblings through meaningful work, have strong, relationships, and contribute to the economic prosperity of their new community. Youth in the program have a vibrant entrepreneurial spirit and a determination to improve their lives, yet lack the knowledge, skills, habits or financial means to turn ideas into reality. Our goal is to help children realize and access this potential. Beggars to Bosses also offers dignity, hope and joy to the youth by providing an opportunity to “give back.” By moving from a place of scarcity, need and dependence, to one where they are able to sustain their lives, children in the program are able to help the very communities from which they initially found support - by creating jobs, new services, or through community service such as improving housing for the elderly.

What will be different within the community of focus as a result of implementing your idea? (1,000 characters)

The program has an immediate impact on the youth across multiple action areas. Their health, housing, sanitation and water are improved. They develop strong community connections and are soon living in safer, healthier conditions and experiencing better health. Enrolled in school, vocational training or an apprentice program, and participating in educational programs, they gain the skills to successfully launch their business venture, which is supported with start up resources provided by Zoe Malawi. Building on, and learning from, their initial business success, youth are able to expand or create other entrepreneurial activities. Within a year, nearly all are self-sustaining and the local community is benefitting from the enhanced services and resources, new jobs created, and from having a group of thriving, self-sufficient youth in their community rather than destitute orphans in urgent need of care.

What is the inspiration behind your idea? (1,000 characters)

ZOE ( is a U.S.-based non-profit committed to breaking the cycle of extreme poverty around the world by empowering orphans and vulnerable children to become entrepreneurs who are socially, financially, and spiritually strong. Originally developed by a group of Rwandan social workers frustrated by the cycle of dependency stemming from well-intended relief organizations, Zoe Empowers has evolved to provide an efficient model with a two-fold impact: it gives orphans and vulnerable children skills and resources to become self-sufficient, and allows local communities to stand behind their young people, as well as benefit from the changes in the lives of the youth. Rather than give money, it helps build the skills, assets and strengths the youth need so that they become creators of wealth and creators of enterprise rather than recipients of aid.

Describe the dynamics of the community in which the idea is to be implemented. (1,000 characters)

The multidimensional problems of OVC in central Malawi — food insecurity, poor health, social stigma, limited skills, assets or savings — require an approach that is comprehensive, long-term and substantive enough to empower the youth to create successful businesses that will allow them to graduate from extreme poverty. Traditional interventions, such as food aid, cash transfers, and school feeding, help them survive but do not offer a pathway out of poverty and can be out of reach of the youth who are often disengaged from communities and institutions where they may be accessed. If they do reach them, resource constraints only allow benefits to be delivered temporarily. Rather than foster dependency, Beggars to Bosses offers an integrated and holistic program to build their skill set, asset base, confidence, business skills and habits, and social capital so they can create economically sustainable lives, while at the same time helping them become healthy and safe.

How does your idea leverage and empower community strengths and assets to help create an environment for success? (1,000 characters)

We believe each youth has, or can acquire, the assets, resources and strengths they need to improve their lives and our success depends on staff leveraging these assets during the 3-year program. Youth are deeply committed to improving their lives and have survived to this point with ideas, hopes, and determination. We understand and leverage these strengths to support their journey to a sustainable live. Youth also develop a deep sense of belonging and a belief in the strength of their community as soon as they join their empowerment group and begin to engage with the community. Despite their history of loss, they quickly develop connections, that are critical to the success of the program. Mercy Trevina Nyirongo, the leader of Zoe Malawi, and her staff, are key resources who have deep knowledge of the region, are skilled social workers, and able to leverage resources and open doors. The local communities have many assets including people and facilities leveraged by the program.

What other partners or stakeholders will work alongside you in implementing the idea, if any? (1,000 characters)

The program will be implemented by an affiliated agency, Zoe Empowers Malawi, located in the city of Lilongwe. Staff have worked in Malawi since 2013 and have worked with many partners and stakeholders across the region. Local businesses have provided vocational training, apprenticeships and mentoring for thousands of youth. Business experts provided trainings to build business and entrepreneurship skills. Partnerships with school administrators have helped youth enroll and progress in school. Local officials have settled disputes about property rights, trained youth on child rights, and addressed acts of abuse. Government representatives have provided expert advice, training and assistance in areas of business development, health, agriculture and higher education. A partnership with Habitat for Humanity has led to housing improvements and houses being built in collaboration with the youth. Another NGO provided training on malaria prevention along with mosquito nets.

What part of the displacement journey is your solution addressing

  • Arriving and settling at a destination community

Tell us how you'd describe the type of innovation you are proposing

  • Systems design: Solutions that target changing larger system

Idea Proposal Stage

  • Majority Adoption: We have expanded the pilot significantly and the program product or service has been adopted by the majority of our intended user base (i.e. 50% to 83% of the target population or 50,000 to 1,000,000 users).

Group or Organization Name

Zoe Empowers

Tell us more about your group or organization [or lived experience as a displaced person?] (1000 characters)

Zoe Empowers is a U.S.-based non-profit committed to breaking the cycle of extreme poverty around the world by empowering OVC to become entrepreneurs who are socially, financially, and spiritually strong. We do this by employing a youth-led program where groups of 60-100 children living in situations of life-threatening poverty undergo three years of training together. Our in-country staff, community volunteers and partners walk alongside the children to better equip them for success. The impact is seen on the streets when children who once endured abusive working conditions are now earning a fair wage with their own business, those once suffering from malnutrition are growing enough food to turn a profit and children who were once isolated and alone are now part of a community. As stigmas are being lifted, lives are being saved, and communities are improving we believe it is more important than ever to expand this program.

Website URL:

Type of submitter

  • We are a registered Non-Profit Organization

Organization Headquarters: Country


Organization Headquarters: City / State

Garner, North Carolina


Join the conversation:

Photo of Delma Mashilwane

Hello Suzanne,

Your organization inspires me to do more for children to give them a better future and I wish you all the best with your idea to go to the next phase. You are doing the great work indeed I hope in future we will work together to ensure children's livelihood are sustained through entrepreneurship from skills learned from vocational colleges and other organizations providing skills development. Let us continue spreading the word of entrepreneurship and skills development as a way of social development and independence.

I applaud your work.

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