Markey Culver went to Rwanda in 2010 to teach English as a volunteer with the Peace Corps. She ended up passing along something much more fundamental and empowering.
Six years later, Culver now finds herself president and director of The Women’s Bakery, a non-profit that helps East African women start and operate businesses that both support their families and nourish their children. It’s a cause Culver (a featured panelist at the upcoming Murmuration Festival) never dreamed she’d be doing today, and it got its start largely by happenstance.
One day in 2012 near the end of her Peace Corp commitment, Culver baked a loaf of bread using a crude stove fashioned out of cooking pots and rocks. In addition to English classes, she had begun teaching some of her female students how to make simple salads and other nutrient-diverse meals and snacks. When the women came to visit Culver on this day, they were amazed by the aroma and existence of the bread.
“‘What the heck?! Where did you buy that bread?’” Culver remembers them asking. “They all wanted to know how I did it, so I showed them. When the loaf we made was finished, the women all took a bite and then — realizing it was good — immediately put it in the mouths of their children. For me a light bulb went off. I was like, ‘Aha! If my intent is to teach them nutrition, this is exactly how we can feed kids. We just need to pump this bread full of nutrients, and we’ve got them.”
Culver started experimenting with different bread recipes using a flour mixture made of whole wheat and peanuts (one of the main crops of Rwanda). The bread was a hit, not only with the mothers but with the entire community. Not long after that first bread-baking lesson, two of Culver’s students returned with exciting news.
“‘Yo, Markey, guess what?” the women exclaimed. “We just totally sold your bread at the market!’”
For Culver, a second light bulb went off. “There was clearly a demand for bread, but no supply,” says Culver. “ I told them, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s start a bakery!’ That is how it started.”
The Peace Corps prohibit its members from starting for-profit enterprises during their service. So Culver assisted the women in outlining a business plan and helped them estimate the funds required to launch the bakery. She then made a vow.
“I told them that if they raised half of the money, I’d match the remainder,” says Culver. “I returned to the states in December (of 2012) thinking it would take them a long time to come up with their end of the bargain. Instead, I got a call in April. They were like, ‘OK. We did it. Now when are you coming back to help us?’”
Culver has returned to Rwanda and neighboring Tanzania frequently — three times already this year — and she’s seen tremendous results. In the past 12 months The Women’s Bakery has opened two independent, women-owned businesses in Tanzania and another in Rwanda. The organization now has 20 volunteers and five full-time salaried employees. The U.S. arm, which Culver runs out of CIC St. Louis in Cortex, operates as a 501c3. The African-based arm operates as a for-profit enterprise. In addition to Culver, The Women’s Exchange features two other co-founders: Julie Greene, a fellow Peace Corps member who serves as East Africa Program Director and Natalie Hornsby, a philanthropist who provided early seed money. To date, The Women’s Bakery non-profit arm has raised over $300,000 to help fund bakeries in Africa.
In September, Culver will be part of Murmuration’s Social Enterprise: Profit, Prosperity and Lasting Impact panel. And while most of Murmuration’s other participants are certain to focus on cutting-edge science and technology, Culver notes that The Women’s Bakery proves that both modern-day and age-old technology can have lasting impacts on people.
“I think what’s so amazing about this technology of bread is that something as simple and ancient as a loaf of bread has the power to create jobs for women, improve community nutrition, and spark local economic growth,” says Culver. “That in its own sense is hugely innovative and revolutionary for a lot of these villages. You’re using what is already there to create something new and build so much with it.”
The Women’s Bakery has set a $250,000 budget for the coming year. For information on how to contribute to the cause, visit www.womensbakery.com/donate.