She is an adviser and a public speaker on gender and development seminars. She is also a career advancement adviser who is passionate about women empowerment and leadership. A quantity surveyor and a chartered member of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (MRICS)— a male-dominated profession—Chimwemwe Chalemera works as a regional commercial adviser for Malawi, Zambia and South Africa at DfID.
Tell me about yourself.
My full name is Chimwemwe, but most people call me Chim. I turned 36 in May this year and was born in Zomba to Dean and Ulemu Lungu. I have three siblings and I am the second born. I am married to Lawrence Chalemera who is also a quantity surveyor. We do not have any children yet, so it is just Lawrence and I plus our very needy dog, Kudu.
What sort of upbringing did you have?
I can say my siblings and I have had a fortunate upbringing with parents who always emphasised on the importance of education. They always taught us the value of being independent and self-reliant and saw education as the best gift they could ever give their children.
I started my primary at Blantyre Girls Primary School, then went to South End Primary School in Blantyre. Finally, I attended Lilongwe Private Primary School until 1991 when I went to Waterford Kamhlaba in Swaziland for my high school until 1997. I did my O-Levels and International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma at Waterford and from there I worked for about six months at a global construction consultancy, Turner and Townsend (T&T) in Lilongwe on an unpaid internship before heading to the UK for my University in September 1998. I studied for a BSc (Hons) in Quantity Surveying (QS) at the University of Salford in Manchester and settled in Manchester following my graduation with a First class honours degree in 2002. I have been a chartered member of MRICS since 2005.
What has been your career progression?
When I got to the UK, I got a job with T&T again and worked in their Manchester office during my holidays and finally, they offered me a full-time job when I graduated. I rose through the ranks at T&T from cost manager to senior cost manager to associate director and head of the renewable energy business unit (working in Manchester and Liverpool). While at T&T, I was fortunate to work on a variety of projects from building new museums, university buildings and hospitals to heavy engineering projects such as constructing offshore wind energy farms off the English coast. The smallest project I led was a £500 000 jetty construction project and the largest being a multi-billion pound offshore energy project. So, after 11 years of working full-time in the UK construction industry, an opportunity arose for me to return to Africa, working in the international development sector, which is something I had dreamed of. Despite being at the top of my career at T&T, I decided to take it and here I am, now working for the UK Government Department for International Development (DfID) as a commercial adviser.
Tell me about your involvement in career development and women empowerment.
I have always been very passionate about people and making a positive difference to their lives. I want to be an inspiration to others, especially the youth and women. I will be a very happy woman if I can play a big part in raising a generation of future, inspirational and strong leaders. There is so much potential out there waiting to be unleashed and we just need a catalyst to make that happen.
I especially enjoy my time with the youth and children. Whenever I am interacting with them, advising them on career development, I always let them know that an honest way to success is through hard work and determination. I took the opportunities that came to me and ran with them. When I was in the UK, I never looked at myself as being disadvantaged in anyway because I was a minority (being a black African woman working in a white male-dominated construction industry), which I think helped, because I was full of confidence going into T&T. Whenever I am mentoring women and girls in school, I tell them to believe in their abilities and never to let anything affect their attitude towards work.
Some of the key obstacles that prevent women from taking challenging positions are lack of confidence and incorrect perceptions that such fields and opportunities are closed off to them, so young girls and women end up not pursuing them in the first place. I remember when I first decided to become a quantity surveyor, I was told by others that there were very few chartered women QSs in Malawi and it was a difficult field to get into – that spurned me on as I have always been one to go against the grain and if someone tells me I can’t do something, I will then do that very thing just to prove I can!
So all in all, based on my experience, I tell women that there are no barriers for them other than the barriers they put up for themselves by not going for those male-dominated sectors in the first place. I believe that if you set your mind to something and are good at what you do, it won’t matter if you are a man or a woman. Employers want good, hardworking people who and if you can prove that you are just that, it would be very difficult for them to turn you down on the basis of your gender. Someone once said: “Whatever your mind can conceive and believe, you can achieve” which I think sums it up.
Tell me about your current position at DfID.
I started in 2013 and have been posted to Pretoria, South Africa, but I tend to travel quite a lot between the three countries and the UK. Basically, my role involves advising the various programme teams in the three offices on all commercial, procurement and contractual matters relating to the delivery of the programmes we fund. I advise on how best to deliver our programmes. Once the delivery route has been chosen, I will advise on how we ensure we get good value for money on the various development programmes, also ensuring we are effectively managing and monitoring our programmes. I am also responsible for setting our commercial strategy and improving the commercial capability of our staff so I also provide training to the offices and partners.
What role have your family played in your life?
I wouldn’t be where I am today without my family. My parents, who are my biggest role models, gave me the opportunity to have a good education and instilled in me the values of being God-fearing, kind-hearted, hardworking, respectful and self-reliant. We are a close family and if I’m going through issues, I know they are always there for me, to give me the advice I need. My father is the most hardworking man I know and inspired me to consider a career in construction and to push boundaries in my career. My older sister taught me never to take nonsense from anyone. My other, very important supporter and probably my biggest ‘cheerleader’ is my husband who has encouraged me through every step of my profession and volunteerism.
What other qualifications do you have or recognitions?
I have a post-graduate certificate in innovation construction and property. I have also won several UK national awards, including the 2005 QS Young Achiever of the Year Award, the 2007 Construction Future Star Award at the Inspire Awards, a Construction Future Leaders Award in 2008 and the Diversity aAward at the 2007 G4C Construction Excellence aAwards. I have also been featured in an exhibition at the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry for women in Science and Engineering as well as being a finalist and receiving a high commendation from judges at the 2008 Shell Women of the Future Awards. Finally in 2010, I was identified as one of the top 40 people to watch in the UK construction industry in the Building 40 under 40 feature.
How do you spend your free time?
I tend to unwind mostly at home by spending time with my husband, watching television and meeting up with friends. I’m a fan of drama series. I also love shopping, but mostly window shopping to my husband’s relief! I’m also quite adventurous (or so I tell myself) and love travelling and trying out new things. On a trip to Swaziland last year, I re-discovered my love for quad bike riding
To all fellow women and girls, all I can say is; do not be afraid to follow your dreams and never let anyone tell you ‘you can’t’. The world out there may be tough, but you are tougher! I think I have said enough, other than thank you for taking the time to peel off some of my layers. I hope my story will inspire other girls and women out there to keep pushing and setting the bar for others to follow.