Most people find refuge in good treats such as cookies, cakes and muffins. Just a few years ago, accessing these goodies was a luxury for a majority of Tanzanians, especially great baked products because we had fewer legit bakeries. Currently, though, the situation has changed, we have so many good bakers who don’t necessarily own bakeries. Most operate from their homes, the majority being women who have chosen to empower themselves. Baking has become a lifestyle not only for consumption but as a business. Prisca Mwakalasi is a home-based baker whose brand, ‘VENA Cakes and Bites,’ is taking not only Arusha by storm, but the whole of Tanzania. Herein below, she shares her life journey with Woman.
Tell us about your life journey
I was born and raised in Iringa and I am the third-born in a family of five. I lost my mother when I was in Grade Three. I could not continue with secondary education after primary school due to financial problems. My father took me to his home town in Mbeya where I enrolled to study nursing at Itende JKT.
Eventually, I married and decided to start a shop but that journey was short lived. I then decided to pursue secondary education through the Qualifying Test (QT) system, which enables one to do secondary education for two years instead of four. I did very well, proceeded to high school and later to university, where I pursued a Bachelor’s degree programme in Gender and Development at Tengeru Institute of Community Development in Arusha. I graduated in 2013 and later pursued a Master’s degree programme in Community Development at the same institution.
In 2015, I obtained a Certificate in Baking from the National College of Tourism in Arusha. I started a home-based bakery while I continued learning from both formal and informal institutions. I also attended several entrepreneurship, ICT and personal growth courses to mention but a few. I then worked with different organisations both as a volunteer and an employee, until 2014 when I opted for a career in baking through the VENA cakes bakery. I also offer training on the trade, and have written a cookbook. More cookbooks are in the pipeline. I am a wife and a mother of two daughters and one son.
What made you start baking?
I have a passion for baking because I love creating good things. I wanted to bring a smile on people’s faces. My other jobs were taking so much of my time, so I decided to give baking my full attention. It fulfills me when I bake because I always ensure I bake to high standards of quality, and according to my customers’ expectations. I have baked wedding cakes, confirmation cakes, apology cakes, Valentine cakes and cakes for people who express their love any time of the year.
How big is your business?
My enterprise comprises of eight employees, four who are permanent and four who work part time. My business has grown from five customers in a month when I started to 50 customers in a month during high season. When business is good, I earn up to Sh3m in a month and half the amount when things are not so good. When I started, I used to make only Sh200,000 a month. Today I get orders from outside Arusha as well.
What is the meaning behind the name ‘VENA Cakes?’
People call me ‘VENA’ - which makes me happy because the name means a lot. When looking for a name for my business, I needed a name that would bolster me even when I was about to give up: giving me hope in hard times. I, therefore, took the first letters of my two younger children’s names and the first and second letters of my first-born. I extracted a V from my youngest girl Vanessa, an E from my son Edbert and NA from my firstborn Naomi - and that was how VENA Cakes and Bites was formed.
What else do you do?
Apart from being a baker, I write. I have written a book titled Utamu Jikoni. I also appear on different radio broadcasts to talk about baking; baking as a business and business in general. I also teach baking - and am a mentor and coach.
What vision do you hold?
The vision to open a quality VENA bakery and restaurant; employ more people - especially women and girls. I also want to open a VENA Academy and train more people about baking. I believe this will reduce the unemployment gap. I want to start a movement for educating young people on the relevance of baking as a career. Many people in our community have the wrong belief that jobs like baking are not for the educated. I have family members who criticise me for baking for a living - what with all the education I have! My husband at first did not understand my goal - until much later. I see so many passionate chefs without guidance, and I want to be the guide they need. This is partly why I have been writing books. I want to write books that even a baker from the rural areas can benefit from.
How do you empower other women?
I am a firm believer in sharing even when one has a little. This is mostly because God has taken me through troubled times. In 2018, I started a scholarship for girls and women who are going through difficult times and those looking for opportunities. Training these women enables them to be independent. It prevents them from being a burden to their husbands, which in turn prevents gender-based violence. We train these women on the normal food cooking techniques as well as baking. We also train them on how to do business and marketing and when they start business, we advertise for them through our networks and social media platforms.
What are the major achievements you have made and the challenges you have faced in your journey?
I have built a strong customer base and trust. I recently won the Women Entrepreneur Award (2021). In 2017, I won the Best cookies award. I launched the girls and women’s scholarship in 2018, which means a lot to me. I have written a book and plan to write more. The challenges I face include the fact that my business is still home-based. I am still looking for capital to expand. I am still saving and looking for a suitable place to open a bakery.
Does being a business owner give you time to rest?
Because I work from home, I now have enough time to spend with my family. However, as a business owner, I usually don’t have ‘off days.’ I work most of the time but I am so happy and grateful.
Do you have any advice for our readers?
It is very important for parents to encourage their children to follow their dreams. If not so, then we are misguiding them, for when they grow up, they will become guilty adults who never got to pursue their visions.