Marky Culver spent 24 months in Rwanda as a Peace Corps volunteer and it wasn’t until her last eight months that she could see her efforts begin to have an impact on the village residents where she was assigned.
Culver is the daughter of David ’59 and Joan Culver, and the sister of David ’05 and Oliver ’10.
She explained to members of the Leadership Committee for Africa and Global Studies Institute it simply takes that long to become a trusted member of the community. She learned that quickly when she tried to establish a community garden early into her time there.
“I tried start a community garden four times,” she said, “and it failed four times. That’s because it was just my vision. I said ‘I’m here to help you and they thought ‘We didn’t even know we needed help.’ They have to be the instigators, the initiators, and the sustainers.”
The project with the biggest impact has been the Rwanda Women’s Bakery, a business that sells a banana bread infused with ground peanuts. The peanuts add protein, a nutrient that is seriously lacking in the Rwandan diet, and bananas add sweetness since sugar is scare.
The bread is sold throughout the region. The 13 women operating the bakery use the money to support their families. That is why empowering women is so important, 85 percent of what they earn will be spent on the family. For the overall economy, the peanuts come from the local farmers, so they enjoy the extra income as well. Her hope is to get the farmers to raise the wheat and find a way to mill it into flour. The bulk of bread is sold at regional village markets; although, there are some walk-in customers.
The bakery is almost viral in nature, Culver said. It started during her last four months as a Peace Corps volunteer. She was trying to think of ways to offset the malnutrition in her village. She decided that baking bread to go along with a kale salad with avocado dressing would be a good place to start. So she fashioned a small oven over a fire, went to a larger town and bought the flour.
Culver then baked a loaf and shared it with some women. Soon they were coming to her to learn how to bake bread. She decided to go with a banana bread recipe, adding crushed peanuts for the added nutritional benefits. As word spread and more women became interested, she developed a bakery concept. She then worked with some of village women to develop a business plan.
As the bakery concept has grown, the women also started selling tea to go with the bread people are eating at the bakery. Now, she said, her next step is to see if they franchise the business in other villages.
One big cultural hurdle she came across was the Rwandan women don’t have a concept of time. They still judge time by the sun. “Time is elastic to them,” she said. “However, they do know the phrase ‘Time is money’ in English.
The women also don’t understand the profit model and cost of goods. The first time they paid everyone, they divided up the money before they realized they had to replenish their supplies. The leaders ended up taking some of the money back to cover their costs of doing business.
People wishing to help finance the women’s bakery can do so through Microfinancing Partners in Africa, she said. The next step is to pour a cement floor inside the bakery, she said. Money will then go toward franchising the business.