Good Cause: The Women’s Bakery
The Women’s Bakery is bringing great bread to Rwanda while helping empower women. I spoke with co-founder Julie about the bakery and you can read all about it below! Check out their Facebook page for more information.
Can you tell is a bit about yourself?
I first came to Rwanda in the fall of 2010 as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I basically showed up and just dove in – as you do in the Peace Corps. I taught in a public secondary school for just over two years, in the ‘far east’ as I call it – Kirehe district, near the Tanzania border.
Following Peace Corps, I returned to the US and worked at an alternative pathways high school in Denver, Colorado for pregnant and parenting teen moms. Then, in 2014 I joined my fellow PC colleague and The Women’s Bakery Founder, Markey Culver, to help start up this bakery idea, which she had initiated during and after her Peace Corps service in Rwanda. I’ve been back in Rwanda full-time since early 2015, building and growing our business.
Can you tell us a bit about the Women’s Bakery?
The Women’s Bakery (TWB) is a social enterprise whose mission is to empower women though education and business. Essentially, we are a vocational training program plus a bakery business. Women (predominantly, we do work with men as well) go through our training program, which is focused on nutrition, life skills, foundational business skills, baking, and bakery-specific business management. Director of Education & Advocacy, Heather Newell, is a crazy curriculum wiz and she develops and streamlines all of our curriculum and training programs with input from the Rwandan training team. During training, we set up the actual bakery and the final phase of training is a soft launch of the business itself. After graduation, we roll right into daily bakery operations, funneling graduates straight into employment.
As a social enterprise, we focus heavily on our social impact. Beyond creating opportunity for women’s education and employment, we look at improvements in women’s confidence, decision making power, family health, education, nutrition, etc. Our Director of Impact, Meg North, has created a serious monitoring and evaluation system and database, for both qualitative and quantitative indicators, which we use to track our progress and inform our programs.
Where did the idea for the bakery come from?
The Women’s Bakery was born out of a quest to address three persistent needs that founder Markey Culver and I experienced throughout our two years of Peace Corps service in rural Rwanda. Working closely with women’s groups and female students, we saw significant gaps in women’s economic opportunity and inclusion, educational access, and nutrition. We also saw great opportunity. Independently, we both began making bread and improving the nutritional value with locally available goods like milk, eggs, and peanut flour. We were teaching women in our communities how to make bread for home and, at first, small scale local sales. Markey was working with a women’s co-op, and they began selling the bread within a two-hour walking radius – it was a hit. That was when the idea for a full-scale bakery struck Markey. After our Peace Corps service ended, Markey came back to start the first bakery – Rwanda Women’s Bakery – in her Peace Corps community.
In 2014, Markey and I got to talking about this on a larger scale. What if there was a comprehensive model that educated and employed women in bakeries, using local crops to create nutritious and affordable bread for local sales, and which could be replicated over and over again? The Women’s Bakery was born.
Your mission is to ‘Empower women through business and education’. Why did a bakery seem like the best way to do this?
One of the gaps we saw during our time in the Peace Corps was that a lot of development activities focus on training and skill building, but they don’t always link that training to immediate application. We believe education is a key foundation to accessing opportunities, but there also needs to be a direct outlet to apply that education. In bakeries, we saw an opportunity to provide skills training that translates into employment in a business which can self-sustain over time, resulting in long-term and consistent income generation.
Bakeries themselves also have a lot of key advantages. One, everyone loves bread! Seriously though, everyone does. But, really, bakeries require a ton of different skill sets to operate and can therefore accommodate a lot of different roles. Not everyone needs to be literate, not everyone needs to be an outgoing salesperson, not everyone needs to love waking up early to bake. We can find something for anyone who is dedicated and committed to their work. Finally, bakeries allow us to impact nutrition. Bread, for all the complex science behind it, is incredibly forgiving and recipes can be quite flexible. We can add all kinds of nutritious additions to each product and vary recipes for the local crops that are available.
How many people do you have working with you and how do you decide who to hire?
Currently, we have a team of 12 operating our parent company, The Women’s Bakery Ltd., focused on executing our training programs, bakery launches, bakery operations, health programs, monitoring and evaluation, and overall Ltd. business growth. On the bakery level, we work with over 30 women employed across four bakeries in Rwanda. Each of these four bakeries were the result of partnerships with non-profits who were already working with specific communities. TWB provided vetting tools and advice, but these partners ultimately identified the training participants.
This month, The Women’s Bakery is rolling out our first independent training program – we used data and learnings from our three years of operations in Rwanda to create a community and participant vetting system, self-identified a community, and have been working with local government to identify women who are invited to apply for a spot in the training program. Those who complete training then apply for specific roles within the bakery. As long as graduates can truly commit to a working schedule, we have been able to find a role for all of those interested in full-time employment.
How have you seen lives transformed so far through your work?
Since 2015, The Women’s Bakery has graduated five training cohorts in Rwanda and Tanzania, and launched four bakeries in Rwanda and two in Tanzania. Women employed in the bakeries can double their pre-training income immediately upon employment. With this increased income, we have seen changes over time with women investing more in their family’s education, health, and improved nutrition.
At our Kigali bakery for example, which has been operating for just under two years, 10 women are employed full time. These women have quadrupled their pre-training incomes, hold family health insurance plans, and report being able to invest in things like children’s school fees, house improvements, rent, and improved household nutrition, which were previously not affordable to them.
Across the bakeries, women cite increased self-confidence and respect within their families and communities. I know we are succeeding when someone reports that they can now afford their own rent, or that they can send all of the children to school. Personally, I am so inspired by the women we work with – the changes I have seen in self-confidence over time are, to me, one of the most motivating aspects of The Women’s Bakery’s work.
Do you work outside Kigali also?
We do! We have one bakery, the oldest, in Remera, Kigali and then three other sites outside of Kigali city. One is in Ndera (just past Mulindi on the road going East), one is in Kamonyi district to the south, and another in Rutsiro district in the west. The three sites outside of Kigali are in pretty rural areas. Our fifth bakery, launching training in March 2018, is in Gicumbi district in the north.
Tell us about the bread! What do you offer and where can we buy it?
Our Kigali product line is the most diverse, offering our signature honey breads in a variety of sizes and shapes, assorted muffins including beet, banana peanut, carrot, pumpkin, and zucchini, my personal favorite orange flesh sweet potato rolls, and Kigali’s best pretzels in salt, herb, or cinnamon sugar. Currently, our sweet breads can be purchased at Kimironko Market, Monday – Saturday from about 3-8pm. Any of our products can be ordered (see website for ordering details) and picked up directly from the bakery in Gisementi, or delivered for a small fee. You can also find our pretzels at Turambe Shoppe, Question Coffee, Waka Gym, and the US Embassy cafeteria.
You have a cafe opening soon. Where will it be, when can we expect it, and what will we find there?
We are so excited to be opening our Flagship Bakery Cafe in May. The Flagship is located in Gisementi, on KG 176, #13 (right in between Fuscia bar and the Jehovah’s Witness campus). This location houses our Kigali bakery, The Women’s Bakery offices, our training center, and soon the cafe! You can expect a super welcoming, relaxed, fun, environment with a variety of seating options from comfy couches to upright tables to bar stools to…swings! This awesome space, designed by Sarah Day Designs, will offer casual, work, and kid friendly spaces. Menu wise, customers will enjoy products from our bakery line, plus coffee, tea, smoothies, salads, soups, and sandwiches. We will start small and expand the menu as we go, so look out for updates on our Instagram or Facebook for new menu items and specials as we grow.
We will also use this space to host special events highlighting TWB’s mission and vision, along with speakers, film screenings, and other themed nights, so stay tuned for announcements.
What does the future hold for the Women’s Bakery?
The Women’s Bakery has always had a global vision. As we fine-tune our model here in Rwanda throughout 2018, we are also looking to expand more into the East Africa region. We have plans for rolling out a franchise bakery model, beginning in Uganda in late 2018-19. We plan to be a global network of women powered bakeries, offering skills, employment, and nutritious and affordable breads around the world!