MARCO ISLAND, FLA. — Tessa Soni, regional manager for the Women’s Bakery, shared an update on the social enterprise’s progress in empowering Rwandan women through baking at the BEMA Convention 2021, held last week in Marco Island, Fla.

The Women’s Bakery is a social enterprise that hires women in Rwanda to run bakeries that supply bread to their communities. Through training and education, The Women’s Bakery provides women with jobs skills and employment opportunities to take care of their families and invest in their communities.

The organization hires East African women, offers them 150-plus hours of accredited training and then offers them employment at a bakery in East Africa. Through employment, Ms. Soni explained, the women are supported not only with a paycheck, but also mental health services, family planning, insurance, financial literacy and many other trainings and services.

The operational bakery will go on to sell bread into the community, and once it becomes profitable and self-sustaining, The Women’s Bakery takes those learnings and success to open another bakery to start the process again.

Ms. Soni spoke to BEMA members from Rwanda. The organization’s eventual goal is to open 10 bakeries that empowers 100 women not only in Rwanda but other countries in East Africa. Currently, there are three bakeries operating, with one reaching profitability in March and another on track to reach profitability in July.

The program’s life-changing model was illustrated by the story of Grace, who joined The Women’s Bakery in 2018. As the primary earner in her household Grace was only able to provide one meal for her children a day. After being hired by The Women’s Bakery, she is now able to provide two meals a day for her family and afford school fees, rent and save for the future.

“If you ask Grace what she has benefited from the most, it’s the financial freedom and job security she now has,” Ms. Soni said. “Grace is the embodiment of what a true Women’s Bakery is: She’s confident, and she has no fear of the future.”

In the past year, The Women’s Bakery has pivoted, with the support of BEMA, to readjust operations to protect its employees from exposure to the coronavirus (COVID-19). These changes included reducing the number of bakery workers per shift as well as their work hours. COVID-19 protocols were also put in place to protect employees.

“We wanted to make sure our bakers were safe because for our bakers this is more than a job,” Ms. Soni said. “This is like a family to them, and they trust us like family.”  

Markey Culver, chief executive officer and founder of The Women’s Bakery, thanked BEMA members for their support, specifically regarding the past year’s unique challenges.

“You got us through a very difficult time last year, and because of that we’re able to be with you today,” she said.

The Women’s Bakery also launched the One Bread Program, which provides bread to local schools through one of its bakeries.

As Ms. Soni explained, many children in East Africa have one meal at the end of the day. By providing children a snack at school, educators have found that attendance and attentiveness has improved among the students. The initial pilot program was a success, tripling the production at the bakery.

“Much of the feedback we received is how much the program helped the bakery become a bigger part of the community,” Ms. Soni said. “We worked with many schools, other organizations and other businesses in the area.”

She went on to share that it costs $20 to feed one student bread for a year in the One Bread Program, which amounts to $12,500 for 500 students. BEMA reported that its members were able to raise more than $25,000, exceeding The Women's Bakery's goal.