Tiyamike Sewing: trans-continental working to fight COVID-19


Tiyamike Sewing is supported by SIM Malawi project #MW96854 Tiyamike Women Empowerment

Malawi has not been immune from the impact of COVID-19. Tiyamike Sewing has come up with novel ideas to help people better understand both how to act in these uncertain times and also how to protect themselves and their families.


At the time of writing this article, Malawi had 4,714 COVID-19 cases and 152 deaths (data from John Hopkins University on BBC News Africa Coronavirus Tracker). These figures are by no means the worst in Africa but they have been growing steadily in recent weeks.

Many organisations are working to help stop the spread of the disease. Perhaps one of the more unlikely groups is made up of a number of widows and single teenage mothers working with Tiyamike Women Empowerment from its base in Blantyre. Tiyamike was set up by SIM Malawi missionary Jo Ong.

Make and model:  Members of the Tiyamike Sewing School modelling masks they have made

“This project seeks to demonstrate the love of God through empowering women and girls from low-income families with sewing skills to increase their capacity the better to provide for themselves and their families, When I set it up, the words of Proverbs 31:25 – ‘She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come’ -  were, and still are, central to why I did so.” said Jo.

“Girls in Malawi are often not given the chance to finish their schooling, due to financial constraints. As a result, many women lack the education to acquire skills adequately to generate income to provide for their families. They rely heavily on the husband as a source of income. This is a problem when the husband dies, leaves the family, or struggles to find employment.”

Founder: SIM Malawi missionary Jo Ong set up Tiyamike Sewing in the family garage

Tiyamike runs a nine-month training course where women and girls, who have been carefully selected because of their situations, are trained how to use treadle-powered sewing machines. When they arrive, many of these women are not able to sew a straight line and struggle to control the machine. But by the time they graduate they are making complex clothing and other goods which they are then able to produce and sell. Indeed, when they graduate each student takes home the machine on which she was trained, in order to set up in business on her own behalf.

Around 100 women have gone through the Tiyamike Sewing School since it was first established in Jo’s and husband Pete’s garage at their home in Blantyre.

In recent months things have changed, and the women have started producing reusable masks and hospital gowns to help protect people during the pandemic. Jo explained how the manufacture of masks and gowns came about.

Tiyamike Prayer Points

Please continue to be in prayer for the Tiyamike Team and the women as they continue to be a shining light in their communities in their fight against COVID-19 and offering the hope of Jesus to others.

Continue to pray for Malawi in its fight against COVID-19, for good leadership and a well coordinated effort by all involved.

Pray for the team that they will walk closely with Jesus and honour him in all that they do.

Pray for each of the widows that they will have enough to eat and warm and dry homes to sleep in at night.

Pray for funding as we continue to grow.

Pray for wisdom for Jo as she continues to lead the team.

“I first came up with the idea to make cloth masks when the government announced an upcoming lockdown. Knowing that it would be hard for our friends in Malawi to keep to social distancing guidelines, due to living in close quarters with one another, I thought the best way to help would be to encourage people to wear masks. At the same time, I knew that disposable masks would be hard to source in Malawi, so naturally being a sewing ministry, we decided to make our own.

“Initially we had a lot of opposition from some people as the merit of cloth masks were still being debated at the time, but we pushed on, and I’m glad we did.

“Since then, Tiyamike has been recognised by the Malawi Ministry of Health as making WHO-standard masks and, as a result, we have had a lot of NGOs, corporate companies, and other organisations buying masks from us. Our Tiyamike widows are extremely thankful for the work. To date, we have made more than 7,000 masks and 300 hospital gowns.”

Infographics: One of the downloadable infographic posters designed by Tiyamike founder Jo Ong

At the moment there are around 30 students and graduates working on this and they are, collectively, producing 700 or so masks per week. Each item is made from cotton or poly-cotton material which is fully washable. They can also be very colourful as traditional African materials are used.

The masks and gowns are only one part of the impact which Tiyamike is having. The other, and this is where the trans-continental aspect of the work comes in, is the production of ‘infographics’ which organisations can download and print off to display in hospitals, schools offices etc. Jo and Pete are currently in Sydney, Australia, having been prevented from returning from Home Assignment due to the pandemic.

“Our Tiyamike Covid-19 infographics and video are a series of pictorial posters that teach people how to stay safe in the midst of Covid,” said Jo.

Success: One of Tiyamike’s early graduates ready to take her machine home at the end of her course

“We have ones for how to wear a mask, how the virus is spread, staying safe by washing hands/social distancing/wearing masks, and social distancing at the bore hole. These were produced primarily with the illiterate/under-educated Tiyamike women in mind as I found that there was a lack of information posters out there for the Malawian context, with pictures that are literal rather than symbolic.

“We also did some posters for Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital. These infographic posters were approved by the Malawi Ministry of Health and, as a result, have been used by many other organisations to help educate the public about Covid-19.

“There are ten Infographics posters plus one simple video in all and they are downloadable so  that people are able to view, print and distribute as needed. They can be accessed at: https://bit.ly/2xl18ch.”

Production of masks and gowns is not restricted to Blantyre. Jo tells the story of one young lady, Lanesi, who lives in Nsanje and has been stopped from travelling to Blantyre to join her colleagues due to the restrictions in place.

“Lanesi, referred to us by another Christian organisation, Dochas Trust from Scotland, has been learning with Tiyamike since sept 2019. She is a young single mum with one child from the Nsanje village area which is about four hours away from Blantyre. Due to COVID-19, she has been unable to return to Blantyre to complete her classes but has been busy making reusable masks to help others in her community against the virus.”

People often talk about the need to find ‘African solutions to African problems’. In the case of Tiyamike sewing it could be said they are finding ‘Africa solutions to worldwide problems’.