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The brave Khayelitsha Cookies’ story

Imagine you’re a food manufacturer who wants to get their products on the supermarket shelves. Here’s a story of people who did just that. Meet Adri Williams who is part of empowering the workers at Khayelitsha Cookies, one bite at a time.

Normally the story of a cookie brand is a happy one involving deliciousness and sprinkles of happiness. In this instance the narrative follows the plot of a thriller movie including a few natural disasters. Read on as Adri details exactly how this story resembles a blockbuster.

The beginnings of this retail adventure started low-key when Adri was still working in corporate and was involved in outreach at the Khayelitsha Day Hospital every second Saturday.

With a ratio of 10 nurses for about 70 children, the infants got very little human contact; the only time they were touched was when they were fed or changed. The volunteers helped the babies to crawl and improve their fine motor skills.

That was when Adri met Noluthando, a three-week-old premature baby whose mother had TB. Nurses say that if the child didn’t drink at least 15ml of milk daily she was going to get sick and moved to tube feeding.

“It took two hours to get the milk in. I’ve never cried like I cried over that girl in that time, it showed me in real time what the effects of malnutrition were.”

Shortly after that encounter, Adri resigned from her job and went for an interview at Khayelitsha Cookies, determined to make a real difference. The business had been started by American Alicia Polak during her MBA in South Africa when she began training women in how to make American-style cookies by hand.

When she had to go back to America because her dad fell ill, Polak sold the business to directors Tim Leher and Tom Fehrsen, who decided to run it as a social development project to give back to the community. Polak now lives in San Francisco, where she is involved in social entrepreneurship and lectures on it at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

Adri Williams and Eunice Nyobole

When Adri arrived in 2007, the facility had four women, three tables, four little ovens and a single mixer. She immediately had a rapport with Eunice Nyobole and they promised each other to do everything to make the enterprise work.

By 2013 the company had accumulated R2.5-million in debt and the directors wanted to shut down operations. Adri bought the company for R1, made an arrangement with the former directors for 10 years of an interest-free loan to repay the accumulated debt, and brought Eunice on board as a co-owner.

Together they vowed to keep the company going, a thankless task with assets worth just R100,000. “In effect I paid a Ferrari’s price for a very broken Golf,” she laughs raucously. 

Even with all the good intentions there were still some real obstacles. First, because of the debt they did not qualify for any form of finance, so seven years down the line Khayelitsha Cookies has to operate the business on a day-to-day cash principle.

Additionally, producing handmade cookies made it impossible to compete with more industrialised companies when it came to pricing or volume. Market research further proved that even the company name was a liability.

“People had a very negative connotation to Khayelitsha because they associated it with informal settlements, so people immediately wondered if this product was safe for consumption; did it comply with safety regulations? The Khayelitsha Cookies brand came with its own set of challenges.”

This led to a rebrand with new packaging and the name You Cookies to present a more neutral brand to the public….

DailyMaverick.co.za: Read the full story HERE

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