A St. Louisan starts a bakery. It’s a plotline that may make some think instantly of St. Louis Bread Co.
But Markey Culver’s chain of bakeries doesn’t mark suburban shopping centers throughout the region. Hers is much farther away.
Culver was stationed in Rwanda as a Peace Corps volunteer from 2010-2012, teaching English and advising new mothers on nutrition at a hospital. A pining for bread led to the founding of The Women’s Bakery, a growing network of mostly women-run bakeries in East Africa.
Culver had never baked a loaf of bread before. But here she was, a year into her Peace Corps service in Rwanda, craving gluten and carbs. She found ingredients around her village and a recipe and directions for a Dutch oven in her Peace Corps manual using pots and stones.
“And I just made bread and it worked, thank goodness,” Culver said.
Culver was already running a cooking class for women in the community, using ingredients from the hospital garden. When those women saw the fresh bread, they asked to be taught.
Before the first batch of dough could cool, the women were breaking off pieces of bread for their children “pretty much immediately,” Culver said.
“And the reason that was an 'aha moment' for me was because I realized women were a conduit, obviously, for their children. And when I realized that, I thought ‘well, hello! If we just pack this bread full of fat and protein and micronutrients, then this could be a pretty darn healthy snack.'”
Culver’s cooking class came up with recipes using peanut oil for more protein as well as carrots and beets.
“If malnutrition were a problem in the village I realized that bread could be an interesting vehicle for nutrition,” Culver said during an interview.
Opening up shop
Culver, who is now 33, made a promise to the women of her village as her Peace Corps service concluded: raise the funds and I’ll return to help you open a bakery.
They did so quickly. So Culver returned and helped open The Rwandan Women’s Bakery.
But as most business success stories aren’t without failure, the first bakery closed after a short time. Culver doubled down by partnering with friend and fellow Peace Corps alumna Julie Greene, to next open The Women’s Bakery, in the capital Kigali.
“The Women’s Bakery exists to create access to education for women, we exist to create access to gainful and also sustainable employment for women,” Culver said.
Culver, who was born in Ladue, has since earned an MBA from Washington University. The Women’s Bakery has opened five more locations in Rwanda and Tanzania with plans to expand into Uganda soon.
At the flagship bakery on a Kigali side street, customers lounge on couches and swinging benches in a large front patio shaded by an awning and leafy wall. They drink local coffee and snack on sugar-dusted pretzels and twisted honey bread.
“The pretzel is my favorite and also the carrot muffin is the best,” said Noel Ntabanganyimana, director of the bakery’s Rwanda operations during a visit in late July, a week before the bakery celebrated its third anniversary.
In a corner of the kitchen, two women twist small strips of golden dough with oily hand into pretzels and honey rolls.
The Women’s Bakery has a social enterprise mission, Ntabanganyimana explained from one of those shady benches. The bakery puts employment and training ahead of profit, meaning it’s had to absorb losses from the rural franchises through donations or success of the recently-expanded Kigali spot.
“One of the big challenges is big bakeries are making huge (amounts of) bread at the same cost as what we make,” Ntabanganyimana said, adding “but it is not the same quality.”
The Women’s Bakery also hires women who are disadvantaged, Ntabanganyimana said, with 70 percent of the women hired are illiterate and also single mothers or unemployed. In all, about 40 women work for the bakery with an equal number having gone through the training program and taken the certificate elsewhere.
“We bring them with the hope to train them and give them the skill to perform and go on the job market, “ Ntabanganyimana said.
Originally, the bakery planned to franchise the satellite bakeries but learned the women didn’t want to own the stores, just operate them. That’s slowed the growth model.
In talking over the future of The Women’s Bakery, Culver is quick to reference a famous chain of bakeries in her dreams of expansion and trying again to franchise.
“So if you envision something like a Panera — or a St. Louis Bread Co. — it’s something like that,” she said.
In fact, she’d love to get some advice from the founders of that more famous eatery.
“And you’d think being from St. Louis, there would be some connection and I just don’t have any,” she said with a laugh.
Culver travels between the U.S. and Rwanda several times a year. For motivation amid the challenges of running a multinational enterprise, she keeps coming back to women who roll and bake the bread, saying their power and resilience is a constant inspiration.
Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney