For many people in the West, Rwanda is notable for two
things: the film Gorillas in the Mist,
and the 1994 genocide. The duo behind The Women’s Bakery (TWB) is blowing that limited narrative on the nation wide
open. The Women’s Bakery aims to “economically
empower village women” and to supply local communities with “nutritious
alternatives to low-protein foods”. With 90% of Rwanda’s informal economy based
in subsistence agriculture,
it is these very villages which need such initiatives the most.
The business model is the brainchild of former U.S. Peace Corps volunteers Markey Culver and co-founder Julie Greene. In the nascent stages of expansion into the rest of the Eastern African region, The Women’s Bakery offers much in the way of alleviating poverty and malnutrition, through social innovation and progressive women’s empowerment.
What led to the creation of The Women’s Bakery?
The Women’s Bakery was formally founded in 2014, but the inspiration for it came much earlier on. The harsh realities of rural Rwandan life for Peace Corps volunteers included unbalanced diets and infrequent meals that are the norm for locals outside of Rwandan city centers. After enduring this physical hardship, Culver realized that for Rwandan communities to thrive, they would need a means to augment these deficiencies. So, she got to work on incorporating alternative foods into local diets to supplement what was lacking. Villagers quickly took notice.
It was this indigenous engagement and curiosity that led Culver to begin informally teaching local women about healthy, affordable options, such as salads and vegetables, which could be included in meals to make them more nutritious. It was serendipity, however, that would plant the seed for The Women’s Bakery. Some baking Culver did prior to one of her lessons intrigued local woman, and after trying some of the bread she’d made, the women noted how delicious it was and shared it with their children, to eat and enjoy— Eureka. Culver quickly realized that the connection of mother-to-child through food could readily solve many dietary issues the villagers dealt with. Malnutrition affects many in rural Rwanda, but especially children, with over 40% of children under five years old suffering from severe malnourishment. Culver had unlocked a solution.
Over the next year, the women who she’d been training and teaching in her house at lunch time had taken on the new and bold task of creating their own bakery: the Rwandan Women’s Bakery. As Culver explained,
“By September 2013, the Rwanda Women’s Bakery gainfully employed twelve Rwandan women, netted $100USD monthly, and captured a growing market of seven villages. Because of the Bakery’s success, [we] had a vision to expand the model. In April 2014, [I] secured an Angel Investment to begin scaling the model throughout East Africa. [We] created The Women’s Bakery, Inc., to act as a third party service provider that offers the model and training for a fee to micro-financing organizations and nonprofits looking to maximize their development efforts abroad.”
The Women’s Bakery, as it is now known, was born. It was at this point that Culver and Greene reunited and combined Markey’s experience with bakery education with Julie’s skills in local languages and familiarity with the region, to create a wider impact for TWB.
How is the Bakery Organized?
The Women’s Bakery has two main wings: one within Africa and the other in the United States. As Culver runs point in the U.S., Julie Greene handles the administrative and technical work on the ground in Africa. As a model, the organization functions as a non-profit in the U.S., while being for-profit in East Africa. In so doing, the U.S. portion helps to obtain the necessary support, education, and training supplements, while guaranteeing the money made by the women working in the Bakeries stays with them and supports local village economies. That is the whole point of the project: to empower women economically through a medium that provides, in addition to nutritional and vocational benefits, health care and support to the women and their families. Each operation employs around six women.
After the rebranding in 2014 to The Women’s Bakery, Culver and Greene expanded operations. Currently there are two bakeries open in Tanzania, launched in early 2015. The Women’s Bakery business model, they found, was flexible and profitable enough to team up with cooperatives in the towns of Kemondo and Bukoba, to flourishing success. The project in Bukoba is expected to expand into several additional regional bakeries. The project in Kemondo has been met with great success, too, as one of their employees, Sister Neera, has successfully incorporated and expanded the TWB model.
Sister Neera began like every other employee of TWB, receiving the requisite trainings and baking practicum before going off on her own. Before her training finished however, Culver and Greene noticed Neera’s enthusiasm to get started and get involved. This was in the spring of 2015. By August of that year, Sister Neera expanded to such a degree that she was able to train three more women under the TWB model, as well as pay a salary to the bakers working in her shop. Neera’s ability to expand the reach of her investment to positively impact other women, and also to introduce healthy baked goods into her local market, is exactly the sort of narrative that The Women’s Bakery likes to reflect on in their model. Thus far, the Bakery model has been an outright triumph in Tanzania.
Mobilizing women’s role in business is such an exportable model, that there are two more operations scaled to launch in Kigali, Rwanda at the end of October, 2015. This is unprecedented growth, for a new enterprise. It proves just how desirable more businesses aimed at employing women and creating social good around the family really are.
Why all of this matters
Women make up more than half of the Rwandan population due to the legacy of the 1994 Genocide, while in Tanzania they are just slightly less than half of the population. They are therefore a powerful part of the potential workforce, and an equally formidable addition to the consumer economy. If families and villages can be provided with better quality, more nutritious food, and if women are the ones who are doing the providing, through economic know-how and the entrepreneurial vision with The Women’s Bakery, then it is an effective solution for alleviating poverty, hunger, and gender inequality all at once within in this region. With many female students curtailing their education during Secondary or thereafter, gainful alternatives to typical cultivation empower women and girls to have more choice and decision-making ability within the household. It is well known that as the economic status and rights of women are elevated, the local economies in which they participate improve as well. Furthermore, as Markey noted at the beginning of her trainings, what is good for a mother ends up being good for her child and her family. When that is amplified on the scale The Women’s Bakery hopes to achieve, that becomes a good for an entire nation.
What is in store for the Bakery’s future?
The Women’s Bakery team plans to take their model global. They have been approached by advocates within the U.S. who want to adopt their model and apply it elsewhere, as they have been doing internally since 2014. The beauty of The Women’s Bakery model is its universality. By enabling the local women to economically fend for themselves through technical training and oversight, they are more empowered and more assertive of their role in society. The Women’s Bakery enables its employees to function autonomously and successfully. The women are responsible for the birth, growth, and success of the bakery. These are skills that can lead them onto their on entrepreneurial paths, and seeing mothers in roles of self-reliance gives daughters a better-formed idea of what they are capable of achieving in their futures.
Where you can find out more information and get involved:
To read more about The Women’s Bakery, get involved or contact the founders, you can follow their story over social media @womensbakery, or via their blog. The world can look forward to many great things (and delicious foods) in the near future from their organization.
---This article is part of TheToolbox.org's #WomenInFront series, powered by Humanise. Learn more about the initiative at WomenInFront.net, or join the conversation on social media: Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.