Martha dusts a small table with flour then starts kneading the dough, before dividing it into tennis-sized balls. Next to her, Jennifer places the balls on a tray and straight into the oven’s open mouth. The sweet smell of baked bread suddenly fills the air. A few minutes later, the golden, warm rolls are taken out and brushed with margarine, turning into deliciously shiny pearls. The group of six women fills tray after tray, singing happily, oblivious to the sticky mud and pouring rain engulfing their open air bakery in Mwandama, Malawi.
And they have every reason to be happy. Since 2009, the Katete cassava bakery has been going from strength to strength. ‘We were only farming our small plots. We wanted to improve our lives and make an income,’ says Martha Simoko, 62. So a group of women approached the Millennium Villages Project (MVP) and suggested the bakery idea, using locally produced cassava. The small plot of land was given for free by a village headman and the MVP built the oven, at a cost of 500 USD, under a temporary roofed shelter. The group today counts 14 women. They have divided themselves into smaller groups, each using the oven 2 days per week. The MVP and the Malawi Entrepreneurship Development Institute (MEDI) provided a two-week training. ‘We learned to bake bread, doughnuts and cakes, and to fry cassava meatballs,’ explains Martha, displaying a heart-shaped baking tray for special occasions.
The women pull their resources together to buy the ingredients: cassava flour, eggs, yeast, margarine, etc. They bake about 120 bread loaves a day, sold at 20 kwacha (1 US cent) each. Every single kwacha of profit they make goes into a common account. At the end of the year, they divide their earning equally. In 2010, each of the 14 women received 5,000 kwacha (33 USD). ‘I used the money to pay my daughter’s school fees. She’s a secondary school pupil in Zomba,’ the nearest town, 42-year-old Jennifer proudly says. That’s no small feat in a region where girls are more often seen in the fields than in classrooms. ‘Without this money, it would have been a problem to cover the fees. So I’ll keep on baking.’
The women do face some challenges though. ‘We don’t really have a shelter from the rain and we have to get firewood for the oven,’ says Martha. In an area where population growth has pushed villagers to cut down trees and farm the surrounding hills, finding firewood means walking long distances. Nonetheless, ‘I’m enjoying this very much and the community is very happy with the bread,’ adds this mother of six. Previously, Mwandama had no bakery and the only available bread was brought in from nearby towns and sold at a high price. ‘Now we have fresh, warm bread, and it sells fast,’ says Jennifer who gives her own children a roll to take to school or enjoy with a heart-warming tea.
In 2011, 6 more bakeries are scheduled to start in Mwandama. The community’s interest is so high that another group of women have already donated 3,000 bricks for a new oven.
‘The goal is to set up a real bakery to produce quality bread products. It will provide better working conditions for the women and create conditions for hygienic processing of the bread and cakes,’ says Roselyne Omondi, the regional business advisor at The MDG Centre, which oversees the Millennium Villages Project in East and Southern Africa. The new bakery will be ‘mid-sized, with larger surface area, electric equipment -ovens and mixers-, packaging, storage and distribution facilities.’