As part of her MBA training, Alicia Polak had an internship in South Africa with the United Nations. This was 1999; she learned everything she could
about the culture, the economy, and how she as an American could make a
difference. Then she worked for the Freeplay Foundation, distributing
wind-up radios to villages without electricity, and seeing the changes
a simple thing like a radio can make in the lives of villagers.
A brief detour into investment banking came to an abrupt halt
following 9/11, when she realized this was not the kind of work she
wanted to do; she wanted to make an impact on the world. Loving South
Africa as she did, she first went back to Freeplay, and then in 2004,
she began a cookie company near Cape Town, developing recipes using
indigenous all-natural ingredients and employing local women who,
often,had no previous employment experience. Her markets were local
hotels and restaurants.
Selling the original company to local entrepreneurs in 2005 , she
started The Kyaha Cookie Company with a focus on export, and began
developing markets in the U.S. Currently, some 500 Xhosa women are
co-employed by Khaya and another company, in an area where unemployment
among women heads of households can reach 70 percent. The name Khaya
comes from one of the townships in the area.
Her recipes include many “nuraceutical” ingredients grown in that region of South Africa, including roiboos and grapeseed.
From a Green perspective, does it make sense to ship cookies halfway
around the world even if it does have a positive impact on employment
and farming? Here’s Polak’s response:
I fill a 20-foot shipping container to the rim with
cookies. 17,000 boxes to be exact. My container goes on a ship that is
filled 7 stories high with containers. Every ounce of space is
utilized. I am using far less waste than the diesel truck filled with
Dole Lettuce packets going from California to New Jersey. Modern ships
are a very efficient way of moving cargo. The best of the huge diesel
engines they use convert over 50% of the energy in the fuel to
propulsive energy fed to the propeller. The best of petrol car engines
struggles get 12% to the wheels.
Others obviously agree. Polak has won considerable press coverage
and acclaim, including the 2007 Food Network Edible Entrepreneur Award.