This organization is empowering East African women one loaf of bread at a time
Using flour, yeast and some ingenuity, a nonprofit is working to empower the women of east Africa through economic development. Called The Women’s Bakery, the organization teams up with church groups and local NGOs to train groups of women in the business and culinary sides of running a bakery as a means of teaching the women life skills and offering them potential financial stability that they would have little to no access to otherwise.
The idea for the project stemmed from projects two of the co-founders, Markey Culver and Julie Greene, created while serving as Peace Corps volunteers in Rwanda. Greene told A Plus that she initially started baking banana bread in her village simply because she missed it, but by the end of her service, Greene and her friend Grace were selling the bread in the village market.
“I left the Peace Corps without any further plans to continue the baking project that I started with my friend,” Greene said. “Markey left with quite a different idea altogether.”
Culver returned to east Africa with the intention of establishing her small-scale baking project as a larger operation. Greene, who was working with AmeriCorps in Denver, continued to talk with Culver about the project and eventually came on in an official capacity in fall of 2014 when she and Culver began scouting locations in Rwanda and Tanzania for their first bakery.
“We just decided to go for it,” Greene said.
On February 17, 2015, The Women’s Bakery, working with a local women’s organization, launched their first training with 20 women in Bukoba, a small town in northeast Tanzania.
Based in Kigali, Rwanda, the organization is open to working with any community in the region that expresses interest in their training, but Greene notes there is extensive vetting and data collection before The Women’s Bakery training begins to insure the group is committed to the program and the community is able to even support a bakery.
Each training lasts at least 153 hours with classes focused on nutrition, hygiene, basic business skills that then build into bakery-specific management and operations. The program itself was written in English and translated into the local language. While there are workbooks that accompany the classes, most lessons rely on demonstrations and one-on-one interactions as some of the women can neither read nor write. Most have never completed elementary school. Almost all already have kids.
In the final weeks of the program, the bakery itself is prepared so that, after a graduation ceremony marking the end of training, the women are able to begin baking.
“Starting a business is really, really hard especially when it’s something that’s completely new to your community,” said Greene. “They have to go out there and explain over and over and over again what they’re doing and what these breads are and why they look so different. I’m just always impressed by their commitment to doing that, and their commitment to growing their businesses.”
Greene says the bread from The Women’s Bakery is a little different than what is normally available in a Rwandan village. While still a plain white bread, the loaves are often topped with a honey glaze and the recipe has been adapted to use locally-available ingredients. Malnutrition remains a serious issue across east Africa, so the recipes used for the bread and muffins are adapted to be as healthy as possible for the community.
“It really was and still is more an issue of the right combinations of things and just having the education about how foods can be combined in a more nutritious way,” Greene said “It isn’t so much a lack of food in general, but not having a knowledge base of how to combine those foods so you’re actually meeting all the micronutrient needs as well as the macronutrient needs.”
Nutrition is as important to a country’s development as creating infrastructure and economic stability. In terms of lost national productivity and potential economic group, it is estimated that malnutrition costs up to 11 percent of GDP for many countries in Africa and Asia. Additionally, it has been found that women reinvest 85 cents for every dollar earned into their families, focusing in the areas of health and education.
“Pouring that money back into the family’s growth develops stronger families,” Greene said. “Kids who go to school are the future generation of that country. Having children who are well-nourished and are also getting an education only builds a country’s economic development.”
Since launching, The Women’s Bakery has trained around 75 people in Rwanda and Tanzania with hopes of expanding extensively in the region over the next year. The five bakeries run by their trainees remain fully operational and check in with the organization at least once a year.
Greene says that over the course of training, she can see a change in the women’s self-esteem and confidence. She believes with an increased level of self-esteem, these women are able to make well-informed decisions about money and her family’s future.
“She’s a role model to other women, to her children, to the community,” Greene said of the average graduate. “A lot of our women talk about feeling like they’re now well-respected in their community and that people who previously wouldn’t have really paid them any mind now come up to them and say, we see what you’re doing and it’s really good.”
By A Plus’ EMILY BECKER