Cookies with a cause in SA

Women at work on the Khaya Cookie
Company production line in the Western
Cape. The factory employs 510 women
and 10 men, all of whom were previously
unskilled and unemployed.

Alicia Polak, founder of the Khaya Cookie

• Nicole DeLucca
PR, Khaya Cookie Co

Philippa Garson, New York

Sinking your teeth into a good old South African crunchie is wonderful, particularly when you’re thousands of miles away in New York, homesick for all things South African.

Thanks to the vision and perseverance of one-time investment banker Alicia Polak, whose aptly-named company Khaya Cookie Company (“khaya” meaning “home” in isiXhosa) is now exporting a range of shortbread and crunchies in the US, more South Africans abroad have the opportunity to savour a delicious taste of home. And a growing number of Americans are acquiring a taste for the traditional South African fare, marketed here as “krunchi”.

So how did Polak, a Wall Street investment banker at the crest of a buoyant economy several years ago, end up in Khayelitsha, the vast and impoverished township outside Cape Town, trying to kick-start a self-help baking initiative?

When Polak opted to do a semester of her MBA in Cape Town in 2000 at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business, she was drawn to the country. “I had a wonderful time there. South Africa made a marked impression on me; I really fell in love with it.” When pushed to elaborate Polak says: “Sometimes a place just fits you and you can’t say why. I love the way it smells. The place is really beautiful and the people are so nice.”

While working as an intern for Freeplay Foundation, a humanitarian aid organisation distributing solar-powered radios, Polak decided she wanted to start up a new company in the country one day. “I saw opportunity everywhere,” she says.

But she returned to New York to finish her MBA. When 9/11 happened, the impetus to leave New York came sooner than she had planned and she returned to South Africa to work full time for Freeplay Foundation.

“At that point I decided that humanitarian aid has its place but I couldn’t stop thinking about the Chinese proverb: if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, if you give him a fishing line, you feed him for life,” she says.

Despite “never having turned on an oven in my life”, Polak hit on the idea of starting a biscuit business in Khayelitsha, hoping to create jobs for some of the many unemployed women living in the township. Although she was warned that going into Khayelitsha alone could be dangerous, Polak says: “When I really want to do something I don’t focus on the negative. I decided this is what I was going to do and I ignored the risks involved.”

She had heard about an under-utilised community centre for women there. “It was serendipity,” says Polak. Already there were a couple of ovens there but no-one could use them because the electricity had long been cut off.

“I approached one of the women there. Initially they were not keen to have an outsider come in and start something up.

“Someone had let them down before. I said to the women there, ‘You’re sitting here in the dark without electricity. I’ll pay your electricity bill if you try baking with me.’”

With a handful of skeptical women helpers, Polak began her “cookies with a conscience” business. She slowly gained the trust of the women by working just as hard as they did, down to mopping floors and cleaning toilets. One of the women, Andiswa Masimini, remembers the day a white lady walked into her grandparent’s house in Khayelitsha, offering her disabled grandfather some extra brownies she had made at the factory.

“Then she saw me,” says Masimini, “and asked, ‘Why are you not in school, young lady?’ I was very shocked. I told her that I was looking for a job. She told me that tomorrow morning I must go to Nobantu Centre at 8am.”

Thus began Masimini’s career as a baker. “Alicia taught me how to bake, take and make orders. I would translate English for the ladies [who already worked there] and Xhosa for Alicia. I had a very responsible position.” With Polak’s help, Masimini has since moved on to study tourism management.

Business was slow to get going, though. Polak recalls: “We baked by day and took our samples to coffee shops in Sea Point. At first the response wasn’t great. Although we were using really good quality ingredients – top quality chocolate and butter – it was hard to overcome negative perceptions.” People were not expecting deli-type confectionary to come out of Khayelitsha and they were not willing to give the products a chance.

“At that point we were called Khayelitsha Cookies. We had cute ‘Ben and Jerry’ American ice cream-style packaging. This didn’t go down well in the coffee shops but we thought tourists might like it.”

Polak then sold the company to local Capetonians (some of the original women stayed with on) and continued marketing the cookies under the new label, the Khaya Cookies Co, to the hotel industry. “From there, it started to go really well,” says Polak. “By this time we had seven full-time employees. I realised I could make this big enough to get ready for the export market.”

After a few months the business moved from the tiny kitchen in Khayelitsha to an area called Mbekweni, near the Western Cape town of Wellington, where jobs were even scarcer than in Khayelitsha. After the facilities were approved by the Food and Drug Administration in the US, Polak got the green light to export to her home country.

She had to adapt her range of crunchies and shortbread for the US market. “I made the crunchies softer because, unlike South Africans who like to sit down, drink tea and dunk their crunchies, Americans are not big tea drinkers. And we like things on the go.” Also, coconut – a traditional crunchie ingredient – is “not something Americans love”, so it’s been left out.

Khaya Cookies has a range of delicious gourmet biscuits, with distinctive flavours such as orange rooibos and grapeseed. There are several melt-in-the-mouth shortbreads on offer, such as the Cranberry Rooibos Shortbread and Grapeseed Shortbread and some chewy, very more-ish crunchies, including the Granola Fruit Krunchi and Orange and Chocolate Krunchi. The baked goods are preservative and additive free, kosher, and contain plenty of healthy ingredients such as flax seeds, organic apricots, dates and honey.

Polak is currently living in Philadelphia, growing the Khaya Cookie Company from there. The factory at Mbekweni now employs 510 women and 10 men, all whom were unskilled when they joined the company. The Khaya Cookies product range is available in both the US and South Africa, and Polak is hoping to export to Mexico and Holland soon.

“I’m exploring new markets all the time but it’s a slow process,” says Polak. “It’s very competitive. I’ve worked very hard to get the supply chain and logistics going and many people have worked very hard to get the recipes right.” Like everyone, Polak says her business has been affected by the recession. Nevertheless, thanks to Polak and the hundreds of women baking away each day, the award-winning Khaya Cookie Company is flourishing.