CHICAGO — In Rwanda, one of Africa’s smallest and most densely populated countries, many women are undereducated and have limited resources for employment as they care for their homes and feed their families, on average, one meal per day.
St. Louis native Markey Culver learned this as an American Peace Corps volunteer working in Rwanda in 2010 before she founded The Women’s Bakery, a social enterprise that trains East African women to launch and profitably manage nutrition centric bakeries in their communities. She began by simply teaching women how to cook in hopes they could feed their families a little something extra.
This was the story she shared with attendees of the Society of Bakery Women’s annual brunch meeting at BakingTech, the conference for the American Society of Baking, held Feb. 24-26 in Chicago.
The Women’s Bakery began in 2012, and today, it has launched seven bakeries in Rwanda and Uganda, three of which the American registered 501(c)3 nonprofit owns and operates.
“My original intent was to teach women how to make something that could be a snack at home,” Ms. Culver said. “But then I saw what they were really doing with it; they were immediately feeding their kids.”
Recognizing the malnutrition prevalent in rural Rwanda, Ms. Culver had an epiphany.
“If we could pump this bread full of protein and micronutrients, we could have something,” she said. “It might not stave off malnutrition, but it could be a way to start inching away at hunger in a nutritious way.”
Never intending to become a baker herself — with an M.B.A. from Washington University and a communications background, she considers herself more of a generalist — she didn’t anticipate what would happen next: Women started selling the bread.
“That was the real ‘aha’ moment,” she said. “There was demand, but there had been no supply to meet it. I realized that I could join forces with them. They were the experts in their culture and their country, and I had the exposure. All I had to do was figure out how to build a bakery.”
The first Women’s Bakery went up in 2012, and through the sponsorship of Rademaker, which helped develop and maintain process efficiencies and workflows, the Women’s Bakery’s three locations and four sister bakeries target their areas’ most vulnerable women to employ, train and educate them.
In impoverished areas where women who gained employment earned an average reported income of $13 per month, workers at The Women’s Bakery now bring home nearly $150 per month — a 600% increase.
“The women bake and package the bread, and then they go out and sell it themselves,” Ms. Culver said. “We’ve given them extensive sales training and explained why this product is different than other available bread, which looks different and crumbles in your hand. Our bread is made with eggs, milk and whole wheat white flour.”
Empowerment goes beyond the bakeries and into the communities they serve by sourcing and selling the bread locally.
“We’re not creating a product and selling it to an outside market,” she said. “We’re creating a cyclical movement of money. That means the money is staying in that community, and it’s giving the people there the power to choose what they want to do with their money, and that’s important for sustainability.”
Choice is critical for this social enterprise.
“I define poverty as the absence of choice,” Ms. Culver said. “It’s not just a financial measurement or lack of basic necessities. Poverty is not having a choice to go to school or provide more than one meal at home for your children. It’s not having the choice to send your daughter to school because your son will be the one to find a job. When I see women exercise their choice, that is everything.”
Strategic plans for growth include scaling up to increase production and serve schools in East Africa so that the bakeries can become self-sufficient.
“The immediate goal will be to bring the three bakeries we own to profitability,” Ms. Culver said, describing the publicly registered 501(c)3 as functioning like a venture capital firm — or more accurately like a “social venture capitalism project” — that injects capital into the three African bakeries until they can reach self-sustainability.
The goal will then become selling bread to Rwandan and Ugandan private schools and ones supported by nonprofits. To accomplish this, Ms. Culver has been working on government relations with both countries.
“If we can prove that students’ performances are improving or that they’re no longer hungry — which has a direct correlation to performance — we can make the argument to the government, then public schools can have this,” she said. “We call it one bread per child. If we can secure cumulative 20 schools, all our bakeries could become profitable.”
To reach its strategic goals and scale up production, The Women’s Bakery recently purchased three deck ovens and has plans to purchase mixers as well. And while the bakery relies on help from sponsors like Rademaker, acquiring commercial-grade equipment has proven challenging due to the high cost of shipping into Rwanda.
“It actually costs more to ship the equipment than the equipment is worth,” she observed.
Other challenges are happening on the ingredient side.
“From a cost-of-goods standpoint, our raw materials cost is exorbitant, comparatively,” she said. “At a normal bakery, you could raise your prices, but that goes against what we’re doing. We keep prices intentionally low so people can afford high-quality bread.”
A self-proclaimed “accidental baker,” Ms. Culver has been researching options in the supply chain for resources such as wheat flour, which is the bakery’s most expensive resource.
While The Women’s Bakery strictly adheres to hiring only Ugandan and Rwandan women (though men are also employed for distributing bread via bicycles), Ms. Culver relies on industry contacts and networking through groups such as the Society of Bakery Women for best practices and other resources.
For more information on this social enterprise and empowerment of women in East Africa through baked bread, visit www.womensbakery.com.