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Life

The Women’s Bakery

In Rwanda, this bakery is changing the face of employment for women.

black and white line drawing of women working in a bakery
Illustration by Araki Koman

When Julie Greene started baking bread in rural Rwanda between 2010 and 2012, she had no idea it would evolve into a full-time business. With no access to fresh bread, she and Markey Culver, a fellow member of the Peace Corps and her soon-to-be business partner, began rolling out dough. “There’s a local product called amandazi — a fried dough — which was really the only form of bread we could get here,” says Greene. Neither of them wanted to replace their morning toast with a deep-fried bun, so, using recipes from the Peace Corps cookbook and working with the ingredients available, they began making their own daily staple.

baker holds a bundt cake
Courtesy the Women's Bakery

The warm whiff of fresh baked goods caught on, so Greene and Culver quickly found themselves teaching the women from the co-op where they worked how to make bread. They then began to sell it at the weekly market. “The ingredients were available, so we decided to teach people [the craft] right there,” says Greene. The concept quickly evolved into a business with strong social elements: use local ingredients to support farmers in the area, adjust recipes to be more nutritious, and employ more local women.

“It’s been an accidental process,” laughs Greene. She and I are sitting on a patio overlooking the courtyard of their newly opened flagship, the Women’s Bakery, a bright café with freshly painted walls, colorful cushions, and simple wooden tables. The café looks more like a trendy bakery than a program providing women all over the country with opportunities. Despite Rwanda having more gender equality than many other African countries, on a day-to-day basis (as in many countries around the globe), women still aren’t on a level playing field with men. “We felt strongly that there needed to be more opportunities for women,” says Greene. She describes the knock-on effect of gender inequality in Rwanda: “It starts from the beginning: fewer girls make it to school, so fewer girls graduate, and fewer girls then make it into the workforce.”

baker loads tray of pink cookies into an oven
Courtesy the Women's Bakery

The women (whom they find through a co-op and nonprofit) are first accepted into the Women’s Bakery program to undergo training before they begin their employment. “One of the good things about our program is that you go through the training knowing that you will have a job opportunity at the end,” says Greene. The company is also in the process of getting its curriculum accredited with the Rwanda Workforce Development Authority, so graduates can acquire a certificate to use for future career opportunities. “It’s not just a bakery, not just a business, it’s social impact. We aren’t just employing women, we’re providing nutritious products, supporting the local farmers, and investing in long-term impact into these women’s lives,” says Greene. Other benefits include registering employees’ families for health insurance with the company and providing mental-health counseling.

Inside the sun-doused cafe, ahead of a blackboard that reads “Strong women baking bread,” there’s a glass cabinet filled with freshly baked goods like pretzels, muffins (banana and beetroot), sweet-potato bread, and honey twists. A woman with a soft smile asks me what I would like. I point to the cinnamon-dusted pretzel, which she extracts from the cabinet and places on a wooden board. It’s not the most nutritious choice (unlike the banana muffin, which is made with peanut flower and sits firmly behind the glass cabinet), but Greene assures me it’s one of the most popular. “The muffins are harder to sell,” she says. Many of us might think of a muffin as a typical breakfast option, but in Rwanda the cupcake-like treats have never been a common product. “On a business level, the biggest challenge has been pushing a new product onto the Rwandan market; trying something new that people have not seen before and getting them to pay the same price for a smaller product, even though it’s more nutritious,” she continues. Today, the most popular item is the honey bread: a simple white bread glazed with honey. When they began producing the honey bread, they were making a mere three kilograms of dough a day. They now make around 35 kilograms a day. “We sell the bread in the markets at the same local price as any other bread, fried dough, or chapati. It’s smaller in size, but it’s certainly more nutritious. We just have to change consumer mind-sets,” says Greene.

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taking a tray of braided bread out of the oven
Courtesy the Women's Bakery

The Women’s Bakery currently has two bakeries in Tanzania and four across Rwanda, which employ 34 women and four men. (Sixteen women have recently completed the program and will soon begin their employment.) Most of these bakeries are for production and distribution, but the Kigali flagship is where customers can sit down, try a baked good, and learn more about the company’s mission — a mission that Greene hopes will expand beyond the borders of Rwanda and Tanzania. “We are stepping into Uganda this year,” she says. “Hopefully we will do more franchises across East Africa in the future.” Most important, their hope isn’t just to spread the goodness of nutritional products but to fuel the employment of women in an industry that is heavily dominated by men. “On a home level, cooking and baking are traditionally women’s roles,” Greene notes. “But in culinary trades, its usually a man’s role. I think it’s cool that we’re changing that.”

Mary Holland is a South African writer and editor based in New York.