Cape Town - 121122 - Supervisor Eunice Nyobole keeps herself busy at the Khayelitsha Cookies factory in Maitland.Reporter: Esther Lewis. Photo: Jason Boud

W hen baking the perfect biscuit, it is key that one has a recipe that ensures success. But when Khayelitsha Cookies started off eight years ago with just two staff members and two ovens, there were no guarantees. Today, it has grown its staff complement to 61, and for the first time has broken even.

But Adri Williams, pictured right, the company’s general manager, says that since the inception of Khayelitsha Cookies, it was never about the money.

“The core ethos was to create employment. For us, success is not measured by profit, but by how many people we employ,” says Williams. The employees own a 30 percent share in the business. Now it is becoming profitable, a third of the profit is paid into a trust for the employees.

Khayelitsha Cookies, where unemployed women from Khayelitsha were given training, skills, and jobs, was bought from its American owner in 2005. The business was relocated to Maitland and two years ago, a second factory was opened. More important, the brand has become a success because of the quality of the product. It has 28 recipes with 58 variations.

But it hasn’t been an easy ride. “The cookie business is cut-throat. We have to compete with machines,” says Williams.

Although it would be cheaper to use machines, this is not on the cards. With testing, it was found that it took the company 40 days to do what a machine could do in one.

“We’re not going to mechanise. This is how we ensure that we create employment,” says Williams.

The women bake between 28 000 and 40 000 cookies a day. And they do it with passion.

Eunice Nyobole, pictured above, 52, is the production development manager. She joined the company in 2008 and worked her way up. She says the job has been life-changing.

“I started here with zero baking experience, then started gaining skills. I love that the bosses supported me, and that I was trusted to be in this position of leading and mentoring others,” says Nyobole.

She says she now has more time to spend with her family, and that is invaluable. She has noted the change in other women too: “You can see how confident they start becoming. It all has to do with the freedom that comes with earning your own money. I understand that feeling.”

For many of the women working there, it’s the first time they have opened a bank account, the first time they have received a wage and the first time they have been in charge of their own finances and lives.

Nyobole says that when you have not worked before, you rely on others to give you money. This often means that the lender can dictate how the money should be used. There is also insecurity because you have no idea where the next R50 will come from. It is incredibly empowering to earn your own money, Nyobole says.

Buyiswa Nekemfu, 31, is one of the workers who boxes the biscuits. She left school in Grade 10, and had not had a job before finding employment at Khayelitsha Cookies.

Nekemfu joined the company in 2007. She says she is happy that she is able to support her four-year-old child. Nekemfu has big plans for the future. She wants to complete her matric and perhaps move into nursing.

Williams says this is in line with the ethos of the company. Once the women have gained and improved their skills, they want the women to explore options with bigger companies or start in a new direction. But the important thing is that they grow. If opportunities come up, Williams says they help the women draw up CVs and help with the job application process.

Gloria Mateza, 31, also joined the company in 2007 and is in charge of ensuring that health and safety standards are met and maintained. She has a daughter aged 11 and an eight-year-old son. For the first time in their lives, she is now in charge. The three of them have a place of their own and Mateza is buying materials so that she can build a house for her parents in the Eastern Cape.

Williams says the company carried out a survey among the women to find out how their lives had changed. She says the most important changes were the things other people took for granted, like feeding their families, paying school fees and buying their children new school clothes. Williams says: “It’s not about the money. It’s about self-worth and changing lives.”