KIGALI, Rwanda — In Rwanda, The Women’s Bakery has developed a network of female-run bakeries to create gainful employment for women to cook and sell affordable and nutritious bread through profitable establishments. Like bread rising in the oven, this organization is lifting East African women to greater heights.
The Borgen Project interviewed Markey Culver, CEO and Founder of The Women’s Bakery (TWB). “We define poverty as the absence of choice. So, our mission is to empower women in order to reclaim this choice,” Culver said. TWB provides the education and skills needed to work in the bakeries. Women can then increase their income, “giving them the space to invest in themselves, their family and their community.”
From One Loaf to Legacy
The idea for The Women’s Bakery was literally sparked by Culver’s hunger. While volunteering with the Peace Corps in Rwanda, Culver was eating only one meal per day as is the custom with many Rwandan families. In order to increase her calories, she baked a loaf of yeast bread. This act sparked an interest in women in the community.
Culver taught the women in her community how to bake bread, but it was what happened next that both surprised and inspired Culver. “I had two ‘aha’ moments. The first was when women immediately gave the bread to their children and I realized this could be a way to address malnutrition,” Culver explained. “And, the second was when women reported that they sold the bread at local markets and I noted the demand.”
More Bakeries, More Bread
Currently, there are seven bakeries in operation, three of which are fully owned and operated by The Women’s Bakery. Another three are independently-operated bakeries that were trained by TWB. There is one franchised bakery. The operation is strong and growing, employing 52 women across the bakery network. The three fully owned and operated bakeries in Rwanda are located in Kigali, Ruyenzi and Gicumbi.
The Kigali bakery is the flagship location. It’s open seven days a week with an attached café. It was listed as one of the top five places to go in Kigali by The New York Times. The Women’s Bakery in Ruyenzi boasts the smallest baking team. There are six women working six days a week to produce bread for local schools and community members. The newest location in Gicumbi shares its home with Rwanda’s oldest refugee camp, the Gihembe Refugee Camp, where some of TWB Gicumbi bakers live.
The Recipe: How it Works
“The Women’s Bakery recruits strong, motivated women in East Africa.” Though they have no previous education or work experience, they are well trained by the company to work in the bakery. The training is comprised of more than 200 hours of skills-based learning where women are taught the fundamentals of baking, bakery operation and financial literacy. This training is certified by the Rwanda Workforce Development Authority (WDA), which is the equivalent of a United States vocational degree. It gives women new skill sets that are transferrable in all aspects of life.
While TWB seeks to operate a profitable business model, it also seeks to operate a supportive business model. During both the launch phase and continued operations, the staff provides the bakers with daily on-site assistance ranging from organizing expenses and sales to adapting workflows and constructing baking and sales consistency. There is even a Social Impact Coordinator that works directly with the Director of Operations to evaluate the impact on the employee’s lives.
Rwanda: The First Ingredient
In order to understand the impact of TWB on women’s lives, it’s crucial to view the broader landscape of life in Rwanda. It is a small country with a densely-packed population of more than 12 million. At least 80 percent of national employment is in the agricultural sector. The rural poverty rate of Rwanda is 49 percent, but that figure increases to 79 percent for families working in agriculture. The gross national income in Rwanda is $780. Poverty-stricken communities lack access to economic opportunities and education, which disproportionally affects women.
The average baker at The Women’s Bakery has only completed six years of formal education. Across Rwanda, more than 50 percent of women don’t even have the option of attending a school. The reasons for the lack of female education in Rwanda range from costs to safety concerns. There are also socio-cultural ideologies. Girls’ education is viewed as less important than boys. Girls are encouraged to marry young. When girls cannot receive an education, the only available employment opportunities when they become women are either low- or no-paying jobs. This has led to the majority of adult women in Rwanda not being compensated for their work.
The Instant Impact
Empowerment through education and economics is the first ingredient to stability. Aside from creating employment opportunities, The Women’s Bakery provides employee benefits like family health insurance, financial planning, mental health counseling and hygiene and nutrition lessons. The sustainable income generated from bread has transformed lives. At the Kigali bakery alone, women are now making four times their pre-training income. With that money, women are sending their children to school and providing more food for their families.
TWB is also empowering women through financial literacy. It teaches employees how to set financial goals and design strategies to save money. For example, at the Gicumbi bakery, women are “learning how to save just 100 Rwandan francs ($0.11) per week for emergencies.” Most importantly, empowered women are confident, happy and inspired.
Fortifying the Community
The Women’s Bakery is having an impact on the whole community. With 40 percent of Rwandan children categorized as chronically malnourished, the quality bread sold at TWB is directly combating malnutrition. All bread products are made from raw, locally-sourced ingredients like flour, vegetables, honey, fruits and nuts. Culver explained that the most popular bread, the honey twist, holds 7g of protein.
Sourcing ingredients locally also means that TWB supports local farmers, thus, boosting the local economy and agriculture chain. In 2018 alone, TWB generated more than $48,000 in sales and invested more than $178,000 into local communities. Through the production of more than 312,327 pieces of bread, the community reached 280 children through school programs to eat The Women’s Bakery bread daily.
The Women’s Bakery has definitely cooked up confidence in Rwanda. Through this organization, women have created stability in their homes and opportunity for their children while overcoming prevalent obstacles in Rwanda like malnutrition, food insecurity and gender discrimination. Turns out empowerment is the ultimate leavening agent.
– Trey Ross