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'The Blue Bakery' (Excerpt from 'The Blue Sweater')

March 23, 2009

Earlier this month, PND staff writer Alice Garrard sat in on a breakfast book chat featuring Jacqueline Novogratz, founder and CEO of the Acumen Fund, a nonprofit venture capital firm for the poor that invests in sustainable enterprises, and author of The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World. In this excerpt from the book, Novogratz describes her introduction to a group of struggling woman entrepreneurs in Kigali, Rwanda, in the late 1980s.

The Blue Bakery

"Poverty won’t allow him to lift up his head; dignity won’t allow him to bow it down."

-- Madagasy Proverb

Blue_sweater_cover In meeting women in and around the markets of Kigali, we rarely found a business that employed more than one woman and maybe one or two of her youngsters. I wanted to know what it would take to build a business that actually created jobs for poor people. There had to be something more than selling tomatoes or rice or baskets; besides, I wanted to see for myself what it would take to make a business work in Rwanda. I started asking around to see if anyone could point me to a business with more than a few workers.

Honorata, the shy woman who worked with Veronique, told me about a project she'd helped create for single mothers in Nyamirambo, the popular section of Kigali where lower-income people lived. When Prudence overheard us, she whispered in my ear that the women were prostitutes. I shrugged but didn't really pay attention, as it seemed to me the word was used too easily in Rwanda. Women who danced late at the same nightclubs I did could easily be labeled wanton or worse. Besides, I was eager to visit any legitimate business with potential for real growth.

Boniface drove us through the wealthy neighborhood of Kiyovu, down Avenue Paul VI, and into Nyamirambo. The day was hot; the air, heavy; the streets were jammed with cars crawling along, manuevering around potholes. Women walked hand in hand carrying enormous bundles on their heads. Small shops stood one after another, almost always doubling as homes. Kiosks, tailors, hair salons, pharmacies, stores that played videos at night were painted blue, green, yellow, orange, though the paint had worn off over the years and the colors had faded. The unpaved side roads were filled with old auto parts and the burned-out bodies of ancient vehicles. At the top of the hill stood a large mosque painted white with stripes of bright green. It reminded me of a wedding cake, a small oasis rising out of its chaotic surroundings.

The "kiosk Allah" -- a little shop selling sundries -- and an Islamic school were located next to the mosque, where the streets divided. Nyamirambo had a sizable Muslim population for a country that was mostly Catholic at the time. Turning right, we passed a tailor shop, a clothing boutique, and a shoe repair store, in front of which stood a 3-foot-long wingtip oxford shoe on a tall stick. Two doors down stood our destination: a singularly unimpressive gray cement building that housed Project AAEFR (Association Africaine pour des Entreprises Féminins du Rwanda).

"I've worked with them for years," Honorata told me. "The women have such good intentions, and you will like them, I am sure."

All I could hear was my mother telling me that the path to hell is paved with good intentions. Her moral philosophy was that we show the world who we are through our actions, not merely through words or intentions. The detritus, disasters, and despair unwittingly created by well-intentioned people and institutions across Africa were evidence that my mother was right.

The group known as the Femmes Seules (or single women, code for unwed mothers) was one of many women's groups organized in part by Honorata and Veronique's Ministry for Family and Social Affairs. The women, among the city's poorest, would gather for training and some form of income generation. This particular group focused on a "baking project," which consisted of making and then selling a few goods in town and sewing dresses and crafts on order. In a moment, it was clear to me that "income generation" was a misnomer. Only one woman was sewing at all; the rest were simply sitting quietly.

There were about 20 of them in the cramped front room, all identically dressed in green gingham short-sleeved smocks, sitting on two long wooden benches in front of a pine counter with empty shelves behind it. There were no baked goods to be seen and no sign advertised what the group did.

"How long have they been waiting for us?" I whispered to Honorata.

"I don't know," she responded, "but they are used to waiting for visitors."

I hated that dynamic: powerless women just sitting, waiting all day if a donor was expected to visit, hoping someone might come in the door with help but feeling powerless to do anything for themselves.

I looked around at the women appreciatively. Bowing my head slightly, I said hello: "Amakuru."

Faces lit up, and one woman held her hand across an otherwise unfettered smile. In unison, the women responded "Imeza," meaning "fine." When one or two began talking to me in Kinyarwanda, I looked around awkwardly at Honorata and felt great relief when she began to translate. Any small effort to communicate on my part elicited gracious appreciation. Kinyarwanda is complex and difficult, and has what seems like four or five syllables in every word. The women applauded when I used some Swahili, for at least most of the Muslim women spoke that language. Still, I knew my African-language skills were on a child's level at best.

A solid, affable-looking woman named Prisca, also dressed in the green checkered uniform, stood in front of the group. With smiling eyes, a square jaw, and a wide, open face, she reminded me of my great-aunts who were built like tree trunks, with strong hands that knew hard work and sweat. She took my hand.

"Welcome," she said. "We're happy you've come to visit." She was hoping I would bring resources, preferably money, but her warmth was genuine.

While Prisca and I spoke French, the women stared. In Rwanda, children of the elites were taught French from a young age, but the poor learned only Kinyarwanda in primary school. Most of these women had spent only a year or two in school at most and couldn't speak a word of French. They seemed to range in age from 18 to their late twenties and carried themselves with an air of innocence and simplicity, wearing not a speck of makeup, jewelry, nail polish, or revealing clothing. Most women wore flip-flops, and their dresses could have passed for prison attire.

I thought of the word prostitute and the distancing power of language. Women with no money and few options are too easily categorized as throwaways. The poorest women in Africa often raise children while their husbands work in other places -- if they even have husbands -- and their poverty sometimes causes them to sleep with a landlord when they can't afford the rent. It is an act driven not by commerce but by the need for survival in a cruel market. Whether or not any of the women in this project ever did this was not a concern of mine. I was infuriated by the license people felt to brand women who, though incredibly disadvantaged, shared the dreams of everyone else.

After I introduced myself, the women shyly revealed their names: Marie-Rose, Gaudence, Josepha, Immaculata, Consolata -- names that reminded me of doilies and lace, not business. There was gentleness in the way each responded, and I wanted to find some way to be of service.

I could see that the sewing project was going nowhere, especially with the country's burgeoning secondhand clothing business. I asked Prisca to help me understand the baked goods project. First, she gave me a tour of the little two-room building where the project was housed. In the back room, an electric oven stood alone, flanked only by a table and a waffle iron. Outside, several pots filled with samosas shimmying in oil sat on handmade stoves. The women were preparing a snack for us, though we'd come with no money and no promises.

I asked Prisca how the project operated. "It's simple," she said. "Each morning, several women come very early to prepare the day's selection. It is always the same, but the people like that."

I would come to know that selection better than I ever wanted to: beignets (fried lumps of dough), batonnets (the same dough molded into sticks and fried), samosas (tiny waffles), and hot tea with milk and sugar. The women would take the goods to the government offices in the middle of the morning and sell them for 10 francs each. They'd then come back with whatever cash they'd earned and give it to Prisca, saving whatever food wasn't sold for the next day.

In concept, I liked the idea. I knew from my own experience at UNICEF that people would get very hungry by 10:30 or 11:00 in the morning because everyone arrived at work at 7:30 and didn't have a break until lunchtime. There were no little stores selling snack foods on the corners, and people rarely brought treats from home. The problem with the "project mentality" was that the quality of the goods was mediocre, and there didn't seem to be a system for deliveries.

"How can I be of help?" I asked.

Prisca answered, "The women are too poor. They earn too little money. They work every day, but the project is losing money every week."

Honorata nodded in agreement.

"How much do the women earn?" I asked.

"Fifty francs a day," Prisca responded -- 50¢. "And most are raising multiple children."

"How much do you lose?"

Prisca took out the big green ledger in which she carefully recorded every franc spent, earned, and paid to the women. On average, the project was losing about $650 a month.

"Who covers the losses?" I asked.

"Two charities," Prisca said. "But I don't know how long they will renew our funding."

"They shouldn't renew it," I wanted to say but held my tongue. Six hundred and fifty dollars a month in charity to keep 20 women earning 50¢ a day. You could triple their incomes if you just gave them the money. It was a perfect illustration of why traditional charity too often fails: In this case, well-intentioned people gave poor women something "nice" to do, such as making cookies or crafts, and subsidized the project until there was no more money left, then moved on to a new idea. This is a no-fail way to keep already poor people mired in poverty.

I wondered aloud why the charities didn't get tired of keeping the enterprise going just to employ a group of women for so little income. How would this survive in the long term? How would the women ever really change their circumstances?

Prisca shrugged. "People get by."

"Prisca, that's not enough," I said.

"No," she said, visibly embarrassed, "it isn't."

I was foolish to start with criticism. This is where so many Westerners fail: After a quick appraisal, we're ready to tell people in low-income communities not only what's wrong with what they're doing, but also just how to fix it.

I apologized and tried again: "Could you be selling more? Could you cut costs?"

They already had, Prisca explained. "It is easier to find more people to buy than to cut costs." She looked at me as if the ball was now in my court.

I thought for a moment. "I'll make a deal with you," I said slowly. "If we drop the charity and run this as a business, I'll help make it work." I held out my hand. "Are you okay with this?"

Prisca lifted her left eyebrow in surprise. When she took my hand, she emphatically responded "Sana," meaning "very much" in Swahili.

Our goals would be those of any business: to increase sales and cut costs. We'd start tomorrow, and we'd turn this project into a real enterprise with profits and losses.

As Honorata and I climbed into the jeep, I looked at her and laughed. "Who would have thought that I, who cannot cook to save my life, would end up helping a group of women with a bakery in Nyamirambo? Honorata, do you think the women will be up to the task of running this as a business instead of a charity project? Do you think I'll be able to teach them to sell? I mean, the women themselves hardly said a word, mostly looking at the floor while I spoke. I don't think this is going to be easy."

She looked at me with an impish smile. "Maybe the good Lord wants to teach you something, too."

I started early the next morning. The women greeted me warmly, smiling broadly. Without a common language, we communicated through gestures and sprinkled words of French or Swahili. While the women prepared for the morning, I reviewed the books more thoroughly than I had the previous afternoon. The bakery had a long way to go, but the feeling of starting something that might change people's lives invigorated me. The world had written off this little group, yet they had a chance to do something important for themselves, and in doing so, maybe they would change perceptions of what the poorest women are capable of accomplishing.

Copyright © 2009 Jacqueline Novogratz.

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