Local bakeries, run by women, offer affordable bread in Zimbabwe, a country stricken by inflation
In Zimbabwe, a child of school age generally has some bread or a pastry in his lunch box. But as the price of bread has rocketed in recent months, fewer and fewer Zimbabweans can afford this.
The Sonka Micro Solar Bakeries project, which has received support from Belgian Cooperation for Development through the intermediary of the King Baudouin Foundation, aims to increase food security by creating between now and 2025 over 150 sustainable local bakeries, managed by female entrepreneurs, in the rural areas of Zimbabwe. “Our company purchases bakeries that run on solar energy and we rent them out to female entrepreneurs who produce fresh, nourishing bread and pastries for their local communities” explains Tendani Madondo, a specialist in renewable energy and one of those driving the project. “The first twenty bakeries will be in the provinces of Masvingo and Matabeleland, where there is great inequality and poverty. But where there are also many hours of sunshine!”, he laughs.
The demand for affordable bread is high in Zimbabwe. “The price of a loaf of bread has tripled in six months, going from $2.50 in February to $7.50 at the end of July”, explains Tendani. “Today, Zimbabwe is going through a period of hyper-inflation. Suddenly you can find bread on the black market.”
Inflation is nothing new in Zimbabwe: the economy has been suffering from it for dozens of disastrous years. In 2008, the government abolished the Zimbabwean dollar after a period of hyper-inflation and since then the country has depended on the US dollar and a local currency system. Yet inflation has once more increased this year and reached 175%, with food and fuel shortages pushing prices up even more. So in June this year, the government decided to reintroduce the Zimbabwean dollar. Nevertheless, inflation has continued to rise frenetically. Elsewhere in the world, only Venezuela has a higher rate of inflation.
Furthermore, according to the World Bank, almost a third of the rural population is facing food insecurity and the proportion of the population living below the poverty line has reached over 80%. It was in these conditions that the founders launched the De Sonka Bakeries. The bakeries’ mission is social above all. “Our aim is to attack poverty by teaching disadvantaged groups the skills that will enable them to be more self-reliant. Those who take part in the training programme come from all sorts of backgrounds, by they all have one thing in common: everyone was unemployed.”
Most of our participants are women. “Our training programme has 400 women, 10% of whom are HIV positive, 50% are youngsters and 40% are women who are also the head of household” says Tendani. According to the United Nations, sexual equality is a delicate subject in Zimbabwe. Even though women’s rights are protected in the constitution, their effective participation in social and economic life is held back by harmful cultural and religious practices, patriarchy, low levels of education and inequalities of power.
“There is a strong demand for healthy and affordable bread in Zimbabwe. And we are going to provide that locally and sustainably.”
The Sonka Bakeries also present ecological advantages. As their ovens use heat produced by solar energy, they are independent of costly fossil fuels. In order to work on darker days and after sunset, each bakery also has a small biogas installation. “One of the major problems for the bakery industry in Zimbabwe today is increases in the price of electricity”, explains Tendani. “Over 90% of electricity production relies on fossil fuels. Our bakeries function independently of the energy market and this enables us to avoid increases in costs. At the same time, we emit hardly any greenhouse gases, so our impact on the environment is low because we generate virtually no waste.”
What is more, the project also enables high transport costs to be avoided, which also contribute to the high cost of bread in Zimbabwe. “Here, bread is mainly produced in industrial bakeries or supermarkets in urban areas, so in rural regions, the bread has to travel far via intermediaries, so prices continue to rise. We, however, set up a decentralised system”, says Tendani, “where the communities meet their own local needs for fresh bread.”
The Sonka Bakeries system operates through franchises and focuses on growth. “The money spent on energy and overheads in traditional bakery activities is used by us to support and develop businesses’, says Tendani. “Our entrepreneurs put 25% of their income into a development fund, whilst still providing bread that is lower than that of their competitors. The more bakeries we develop, the more we can build. We have a model of exponential growth, aimed at having around 150 bakeries five years from now.”
“The training programme focuses on participants’ hard and soft skills. Firstly, we provide them with an intensive bakery workshop. Then they are helped to acquire skills such as financial management, communication, punctuality and local marketing. We have all the required skills in our project team” explains Tendani. “We have entrepreneurial experience, expertise in the field of renewable energy, knowledge in confectionary, bakery management, training, sales and marketing. The oven manufacturer helps the entrepreneurs regarding technical knowledge. We also work together with a not-for-profit association, which has expertise in community mobilization and in managing local stakeholders. And we are also supported by women’s organisations, the Ministry of Social Development and local government agencies.”
A South African company is initially supplying the wheat flour and other bakery ingredients “But we hope to be able to supply these locally in the long term” says Tendani. “We try to control the unpredictable by monitoring the input, among other things. We have developed a system that enables us to oversee the costs and price of every item we sell on a quarterly basis.
In December 2019, the first loaves of bread produced in biogas ovens will be sold. The first solar energy ovens will come into service in January 2020. “This project will bring a much needed green wind of change in rural Zimbabwe. But we still have to see precisely how our future will work out in figures, because of the great economic uncertainty that reigns in our country. We need to be flexible” says Tendani.
“However,” he concludes ‘this project could not have come at a more opportune moment. There is a strong demand for healthy and affordable bread in Zimbabwe. And we are going to provide that locally and sustainably.”