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In spotlight: Pauline Kariuki, The Women’s Bakery

Pauline Kariuki, Director of Operations, shares her story of working in the industry in Africa’s growing market and her journey together with The Women’s Bakery, a project that brings breads to communities in East Africa and supports women to gain specialty training, a stable income and proper nutrition.

Catalina Mihu: The Women’s Bakery (TWB) was started by two entrepreneurial women who, during their time as Peace Corps Volunteers in Rwanda, saw the lack of opportunity for women there. It then grew to become a network of bakeries in East Africa. What convinced you to join a project like this, and what made it the right time and place for you?

Kariuki: I joined TWB in August 2021; I moved from Nairobi, Kenya to Kigali, Rwanda with my young daughter to work for TWB. This has been one of the most fulfilling decisions in my life. I am an empowered woman, a motivated woman; a woman on a mission to help create access to opportunities for other women.

TWB’s own mission is to socially and economically empower women because an empowered woman, by herself, is an outcome worth fighting for. This resonates deeply with me, because my personal life is a testimony of such a mission. My life was transformed by access to opportunities – in my case, access to earn an education. In my adult life, I have always had a desire to give back. And then The Women’s Bakery approached me with an opportunity to work for them. This was it! This was the perfect scenario where I could give back through my work, and put my skills and experience to practice, while still not sacrificing my professional and personal growth. Being who I am today is a testimony that lives and families can be transformed by people’s generosity.

My testimony is that I wouldn’t be who I am today were it not for access to an opportunity. I come from a very humble background, similar, if not identical to that of the women we work with at The Women’s Bakery. I was born and raised in a slum in Nairobi called Kawangware. My dad was from there, as were my paternal grandparents. To date, most of my paternal family still lives there. I am the second born of five children. I grew up in a two-room house – only two rooms in the whole house with seven people. The toilets and bathroom were communal and outside. I didn’t have electricity until I was in high school and indoor plumbing much later.

I’ve lived with one meal a day – dinner, because you can’t go to sleep hungry. I mean this lit-e-rally. Try and see! I got access to education through a charity where generous people donated to people they had never met. Without this opportunity, my life would definitely have been stunted. I have witnessed this firsthand through my childhood friends and family, cousins who did not get the opportunity that I did.

So this is my testimony; I am an empowered woman. I am at the pinnacle of my career, witnessing not only my growth but that of my family members. Opportunity changed the course of my life and the life of my child. This is the same impact that I see at The Women’s Bakery, and this Impact is not just for an individual, it is generational.

I’ve been working in the baking industry in East Africa for over 18 years. Working for The Women’s Bakery is different. It is meaningful. I’m inspired by the women around me. I see my mother, my aunties, I see my childhood neighbors in the women I work with. I can visualize the transformational impact of these women when empowered. I see creating access to opportunities as hope; giving the women and their families a fighting chance at life for a better future.

Mihu: What are some of the milestones in your career that steered you on the path you walk today?

Kariuki: I worked at the former Ennsvalley Bakery Ltd, in Nairobi, Kenya, for 12 years. Afer that, I worked at BBROOD Kenya – an artisan bakery chain from the Netherlands, where I was involved from the start of operations in Kenya to it having five successful branches by the time I moved on. I also co-founded a bakery ingredients company in Nairobi, Bakeking Solutions, which unfortunately was adversely affected by the COVID pandemic.

Mihu: Please detail the project providing nutrition-enriched bread for schools, made with locally sourced ingredients and naturally fortified with milk, eggs and vegetables. Since it serves areas where children usually only have access to one meal per day, how many children benefit from the program now?

Kariuki: The One Bread Project (OBP) initiated by TWB is a transformative initiative aimed at addressing nutritional gaps of vulnerable primary school-aged student populations and improving the nutritional health and well-being of school children in Rwanda. The goal of the OBP is to provide a daily nutritious bread roll to students in vulnerable communities ensuring they receive essential nutrients while attending school to help improve their overall health, well-being and school performance.

Initially, we were serving the kids with protein-enriched bread naturally fortified with milk and eggs, but we have since developed the product into a fortified bread roll that incorporates essential micronutrients and macronutrients, to ensure optimal nourishment. The fortified bread meets FAO/WHO/WFP nutritional recommendations and includes iron, zinc, folic acid, vitamin B12, niacin, thiamine and riboflavin, with extra CaCO3 and wheat bran and germ for fiber, which is crucial for the proper digestion of food, but more importantly, a proper intake of vitamin D.

The project covers rural and urban areas of Rwanda in the vicinity of Kigali, Ruyenzi and Gicumbi districts, where our three bakeries are located. We are currently serving 18,000 kids daily.

Mihu: How is this bread developed? What are the next steps of this project?

Kariuki: The bread was developed through technical support from one of the partners in the industry, Rademaker. We were introduced to modern-day product fortification and also introduces to a supplier for it.

The next step for the project is to expand the impact, one bread at a time, and sustainably grow it, with the vision of having it incorporated into a national school feeding program. We have a vision of serving one million kids daily but are happy to get to 100,000 in the next stage.


A growing project, bread by bread

Mihu: TWB’s mission is to empower local women financially and socially by training them. How do you see your role and your personal influence in TWB?

Kariuki: In my capacity at TWB, I see my role and personal influence centered around growing and scaling the company operations while infusing sustainability into our model. My goal is to broaden the access for women to empowerment through skill development opportunities, employment opportunities, and entrepreneurship opportunities.

Mihu: How has your role evolved over time? And how has the business model of TWB started transitioning from a charity to a self-sustainable business?

Kariuki: My role has evolved into the call to develop the team’s capabilities so that they are able to take on the next phase of growth. The business model of TWB has started transitioning from a charity, donation-based organization to a self-sustainable business model by looking to implement several strategies, including micro-franchising for reseller outlets to increase our reach and distribution. We are also partnering with corporate collaborators to co-fund the One Bread Project School feeding program and we are exploring our product diversification to expand our revenue streams. Although we have this pathway to sustainability, we are not there yet and we are still very much a charity that depends on funding to support and grow our operations.

Mihu: The Women’s Bakery is still welcoming donations for its work. For what projects are you currently raising funds now, and how can people/companies support them?

Kariuki: To quote our CEO, “Yes we still absolutely are welcoming donations”, to support our initiatives! We are currently fundraising for several projects, and individuals or companies can contribute either financially or with in-kind support. Our projects encompass the One Bread Project – our school feeding program, training and development for our team, small equipment needs, logistics including transport, distribution and storage needs, and exploring power backup sources so we do not need to stop production during blackouts. Also on our task list is investigating alternatives and supplements for wheat as the primary ingredient in our recipes. All forms of assistance including partnerships, sponsorships, skill exchange programs, collaborations, technical support and financial support are appreciated!

Mihu: I had the pleasure of meeting you in person at iba, in Munich, where we were guests at Rademaker’s stand, whose team introduced us. How is TWB working with its industry partners?

Kariuki: We are lucky to have corporate partners from the industry, one of them being Rademaker, which is our longest-serving corporate partner. We have also been invited by industry organizations such as BEMA and IBIE where we have benefited from the networking and introductions made to corporate partners in the industry.

Our goal is to forge partnerships with key players in the industry encompassing equipment, ingredients, and manufacturers. Collaborations with such industry stakeholders present diverse avenues for supporting The Women’s Bakery.

The significant disparities in the bakery industry abroad and here, in East Africa, highlight the need for support and development in this region to address unemployment and other challenges faced by developing countries. Our mission to empower women from minority groups through training and employment opportunities plays a pivotal role in promoting social and economic empowerment in East Africa. The partnerships made with industry players will contribute to the success of our mission. We aspire to establish strategic partnerships with major industry leaders such as Grupo Bimbo and Flower Foods.

Our quest with industry partners is to enrich our journey, leveraging insights and expertise to propel TWB toward even greater success and expand our reach.

Mihu: What product ranges are being prepared and taught at the moment and what new developments are you working on?

Kariuki: Our primary focus right now is soft bread and bread rolls. However, we are looking to expand and diversify our range to include other nutritious baked products.

Mihu: What is on TWB’s agenda going forward? How about your personal agenda?

Kariuki: At TWB, we aim to increase our impact on women’s empowerment and enhance community nutrition in East Africa. We believe that all women are inherently powerful, and with access to social and economic opportunity, the world benefits. An empowered woman, on her own merits, is an outcome worth fighting for. We see this happening through having a network of The Women’s Bakery subsidiaries in Africa.

My personal agenda is to contribute to a meaningful impact on the lives of women and children in East Africa. This profound aspiration is deeply rooted in my commitment to meet my self-actualization goal and contribute positively to the well-being of our society.

Mihu: You visited iba for the first time this year. What were some of the observations that made the biggest impression on you and what inspiration did you bring home from Munich?

Kariuki: The conference provided a unique opportunity to gain insights into the latest trends, technologies, and practices in the baking industry. It was inspiring to witness the remarkable technological advancements showcased at the Munich bakery exhibition, particularly in addressing labor shortages experienced abroad through advanced production technology. On the other hand, it highlighted a contrasting situation in East Africa, emphasizing the need for support and development in this region, to address unemployment and other challenges faced by developing countries.

My inspiration included opportunities for product diversification, quality enhancement, food waste reduction, cost savings, and small equipment to support our operations.

Read the full interview in Baking+Biscuit International, issue 6!

Photos: The Women’s Bakery