From the retail shop on the corner to the global manufacturer, every bakery began with a purpose. The Women’s Bakery’s story begins in Rwanda, one of Africa’s smallest and most densely populated countries, where Markey Culver, founder and chief executive officer, married bread baking with a passion for creating social change.
Today, The Women’s Bakery — an American registered 501(c)3 nonprofit — owns and operates three bakeries in Rwanda and is piloting a viable franchise in Uganda.
By teaching the skills required to bake and sell bread, The Women’s Bakery has enabled Rwandan and Ugandan women to increase their income by as much as 600%.
As the business expands through support from corporate sponsors such as Rademaker, The Women’s Bakery has successfully moved out of the startup phase and is focused on growth, longevity and social impact. Before Ms. Culver tells her story at IBIE during the Fresh Take Talk, “An Invitation to See Bread Differently,” on Sept. 9 at 11 a.m., she first sat down with Joanie Spencer, editor, Baking & Snack, to share her thoughts on how bread can be a conduit for change, and how one bakery can make a lasting impact on communities around the world.
Joanie Spencer: You refer to yourself as an “accidental baker.” How did you get into baking?
Markey Culver: I call myself both an accidental baker and an accidental entrepreneur. It all started when I was in the Peace Corps in Rwanda. I was in a rural village, and I wanted bread, so I looked up a recipe in our Peace Corps cookbook; the Peace Corps had trained me how to make an oven over an open fire using pots and stones. So, I made bread, which was delightful and amazing, and I felt very accomplished because it was the first time I had ever baked bread.
Then a group of women came into my house and saw the bread; it’s a known commodity in Rwanda, but it’s hard to find, perhaps even a luxury. When I told them I made it, they got very excited and asked me to teach them. I thought that was kind of comical because I was like, ‘I can teach you, but I don’t really know what I’m doing!’
When I taught them, there were two ah-ha moments. My first was seeing what the women did with their bread; they gave it to their children immediately. Women are always a conduit to their children. I realized bread could be a powerful way to provide a nutritious snack for kids who would otherwise not have access to such snacks. Then I started fortifying my yeast bread recipe with locally available ingredients, such as peanut flour. We also made quick breads with bananas, beets and carrots if we could find them.
My initial goal was to teach women how to make nutritious bread so they could go home and bake it for their families, but the second ah-ha happened when they started selling their bread. And I thought, ‘This is it. They’ve discovered demand, and there’s no supply, yet. Let’s create the supply.’ And that was the genesis for what has now become The Women’s Bakery.
This began by teaching women a life skill. At what point did it turn into a business?
Ms. Culver: The first bakery I launched after my Peace Corps service failed, but I knew the model still had great potential and just needed to be analyzed and refined; I needed to work through some of the failures and think about how we could do it differently.
I engaged my best friend from the Peace Corps — Julie Greene — and after brainstorming, Julie helped me launch The Women’s Bakery. She helped me design a new model that we piloted in Tanzania in 2015.
There were probably multiple turning points, but I think it’s important to say the turning point of The Women’s Bakery becoming a real business wasn’t necessarily the launch.
Meg North and Heather Newell came on board shortly after our launch, and that was the big turning point. Julie and I created the framework, and Heather and Meg helped build the guts of a viable business. In total, we have helped to launch seven bakeries, and we own and operate three of those.
How is The Women’s Bakery impacting the local economy and the lives of the women who operate it?
Ms. Culver: Part of our original model was training. Today, we have a full-blown, nationally accredited workforce development training program in Rwanda that was 100% researched and written by Heather. She created this curriculum that contains more than 150 hours and is tailored to Rwandan women. When women graduate our training program, it’s as if they’re receiving the equivalent of a degree; it’s like getting a vocational school certificate in the U.S.
We intentionally recruit some of the most vulnerable women in Rwanda, and reading or writing abilities are not a prerequisite to go through and graduate from our training program. Your formal employment history is also not a prerequisite for coming to work for us. We work with women who lack access to choice and opportunity, and we’re trying to create access to both for them.
For some women, this is their first formal education experience, and the certificate they earn is transferrable. If they choose at some point that they don’t want to work at the bakery, they have a transferrable certificate. Since 2015, we’ve trained about 100 women.
For most women, the average income before joining The Women’s Bakery was about $13 a month, which is about $156 a year. Once they start working at the bakery, however, they’re making a minimum of $400 or $450 a year when accommodating for things like currency fluctuation. Women working at our longest-operating bakery are now earning about $900 a year.
Income is tangible; it provides access to food, clothes and children’s school fees that were otherwise not accessible to these women. There are also intangible benefits like increased confidence and how they view themselves and their worth within their families and communities. It’s life-changing. It’s real; these are real human beings with real lives, and they’re earning this transformation for themselves.
As for the local economy, part of our model is to source as locally as we can. There is a caveat there, though: the wheat flour. We buy it in Rwanda, but it doesn’t come from Rwanda. Wheat is imported from Russia, Argentina and the U.S.
The intention behind sourcing locally is to make sure we are investing in the communities where these bakeries are. It’s a cyclical economy, if you will, where we’re sourcing from the community and selling bread to the same community. We’re generating income that stays there. That’s important because it’s not we who dictate how the money is used; it’s the community.
Can you describe the sales structure?
Ms. Culver: Right now, there’s a production group and sales group, and the sales group goes out and sells the bread on foot. We’re dabbling with what I hope will become a ‘hub and spoke’ model, where we’re working with different agents to distribute the bread. For example, at one bakery, we have a man who distributes on a bicycle. He’s the husband of a woman who works at the bakery. We’re trying to replicate that in another bakery.
How has the bakery grown? How did it meet (or exceed) your expectations?
Ms. Culver: If you had told me six years ago, ‘You’re going to start a social enterprise based on bread, and you’re going to keep working in Rwanda,’ I’d have laughed and said, ‘I’m not doing that.’
This has exceeded my wildest expectations simply because it was just an idea. It started with something so simple, but I was inspired by the way the women worked with the bread and what they did with it. We have 11 full-time staff and 24 women employed full-time at three bakeries in Rwanda.
I’d like to keep going … I see a lot of potential here. It’s been wonderful to watch the growth with our own team with the addition of people and bakers and the cultivation of management and leadership skills. Our team is all female, and I think that’s pretty powerful. And while it’s very much Rwandan right now, I think it certainly has the capacity to grow beyond that and become a globally relevant model.
What are your long-term goals for The Women’s Bakery? How will growth affect production needs?
Ms. Culver: The two-year plan is to bring our three existing bakeries in Rwanda to full profitability. We’re pushing as hard as we possibly can this year and trying to hit that goal, but we’re giving ourselves a two-year runway.
In the wings, we also have a pilot franchise model in Uganda. We’ve done this very intentionally. While we’re focusing on the three bakeries we own and operate in Rwanda, we have expanded to the pilot to watch how it goes and whether the path to profitability mirrors that of the bakeries in Rwanda.
Long-term, the goal is to become the ‘Panera of East Africa.’ We need to figure out exactly what the formula is, without any compromise to the social impact, and launch it all over East Africa.
To accomplish that, we’ll need a steady supply of commercial equipment. As far as I know, there’s no equipment that’s manufactured in East Africa.
And we’d certainly need help in the raw materials supply as well. Our No. 1 ingredient — wheat flour — is not grown on a large commercial scale on the continent, as far as I know, so we need to figure out how to partner with suppliers. It would be great for us to work directly with wheat suppliers so we can keep our costs low for these high-impact bakeries.
Another pain point we are experiencing right now is packaging. Many African countries, including Rwanda, are moving toward more environmentally friendly packaging. I totally support that; however, there are no alternatives. If you take away plastic, there’s nothing for us to use. So, we need to find — or create — a supply of consistent but eco-friendly packaging.
Because everything is high-impact, the other part of our mission is also to create access to high-quality and nutritious bread for families. The way we do that is through price. We lock ourselves into a price ceiling very intentionally, and we have to keep that price point. In order to do that, we have to make sure our costs stay low.
As a social enterprise, there are two ways to look at our price ceiling: the ‘social’ and the ‘enterprise.’ On the social side, we’re making nutritious, quality bread accessible by making it affordable. On the enterprise side, we have an opportunity to grow market share in an environment that’s virtually untapped. If we can get the brand awareness and make sure the price point remains exactly where it needs to be, we can control the market share. That really will lead to our growth and our longevity.
Obviously, the social impact keeps me going. But if it weren’t for the real business potential, it just couldn’t make sense.
The business potential provides the opportunity to meet the social need. Bread is our medium and business is our tool. Bread is not why we’re doing what we’re doing; it’s a medium that enables us to do what we’re doing. We want to ensure that we have a high social impact. But we can’t do that without a sustainable tool.
If you meet that long-term goal, how can The Women’s Bakery impact the baking industry?
Ms. Culver: What I get most excited about is that we could prove that social enterprise really does work. You don’t have to put profit before people. Or even people before profit. The two can act in harmony with one another. You can put them on equal footing and have a profitable business with a high social impact.
Truly, I think that when business is done well, it can be a social enterprise. If you treat your people well, if your product is made with integrity, if you’re sourcing with integrity, you don’t necessarily need the label of ‘social enterprise.’ That’s just ‘good with a capital G’ business.
If we achieve the kind of success that I’m hoping we do, there could be a small revolution in this space because it’s basically a fusion of for-profit and nonprofit and showing the world that this fusion can exist. And that’s exciting.