Where There’s a Will There’s a Waffle

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Alex Sudheim

28 Jun 2022 Clock 9 min

To be more precise: a wafel. A stroopwafel. The inspired Humansdorp-based social entrepreneurship project Soete Swaan is spreading the sweet taste of sustainability across South Africa with this irresistible Dutch delicacy. With the implementation of an innovative marketing strategy and fully-fledged business phone system from Voys, Soete Swaan is taking the country by sweet, syrupy storm. 

Young Swans

Anyone who has had the pleasure of sinking their teeth through the crisp, slightly chewy, outer layer into the gooey, caramelised syrup at the centre will tell you: there is simply nothing quite like a stroopwafel. Especially when enjoyed with a hot, fresh cup of coffee on a brisk winter’s day. 

Holland’s enduring contribution to global cuisine may not be as ubiquitous as the pizza, but it is every bit as iconic. And, as it turns out, a potent catalyst for social change. The seeds of Soete Swaan, South Africa’s only homegrown producer of authentic, handmade stroopwafels, were planted in Victory4All. The NGO in Jeffrey’s Bay is dedicated to social upliftment and poverty alleviation through myriad education and skills development initiatives.

Dutch entrepreneur Derk Oosterveld, his wife Hanka and their young son lived in Jeffrey’s Bay for three years between 2016 and 2019. At around this time, Victory4All was expanding its Rainbow Centre for children with special needs. As crucial as the service provided by the centre is, it essentially operates as a school: once the kids reach 18, they make way for the influx of new arrivals. It struck Derk that this was not an ideal outcome for young adults with mental, physical or learning disabilities, as such youngsters are all too often marginalised by society and the formal economy.    

‘We believe they also have talent, if you’re prepared to look a bit deeper. They, too, long to be productive members of the community,’ says Derk of these young adults. ‘So we started a skills and training centre under the flag of Victory4All in which these youngsters receive guidance and direction as well as instruction in the kind of skills that will allow them to gain employment.’ The passion Derk and Hanka share for uplifting these youthful community members and unlocking their true potential is in evidence in this beautiful video.

The centre focuses on manual skills such as woodwork, sewing, car-washing and gardening. During their year there, the youngsters try their hand at a variety of activities to ascertain where their strengths lie. Once the year is up and the students have acquired skills (and, just as importantly, a sense of agency), the centre tries to find jobs for them. As a result, several graduates of the centre work in local factories and other establishments such as restaurants and guest houses. 

The stroopwafel squad ready for action.

Moment of Truth

However, given the handicaps and disabilities of many of the youngsters emerging from both the Rainbow Centre and the skills centre, even the smartest of them proved difficult to place in the formal economy. With this insight came the realisation that only through the creation of an independent, self-sustaining company could the employment needs of Victory4All’s divergent group of young adults be met.   

‘That’s when my wife Hanka came up with the idea for the stroopwafels,’ says Derk. ‘It immediately appealed to my entrepreneurial side because no-one in South Africa was making stroopwafels, so there was a gap in the market. And from a logistical perspective it perfectly met our needs because it’s a complete production process from beginning to end. Everyone can play a part which fosters skills development, teamwork, income generation and professional pride. And, of course, now South Africans can enjoy delicious Dutch stroopwafels made by hand in South Africa using only the freshest local ingredients.’

However, as Derk readily concedes, ‘I’m an entrepreneur, not a baker’. Thus it was only after many messy experiments in his home kitchen (‘We ate a lot of prototypes,’ he quips) and much help from professionals in Holland, that the ideal recipe was brought to fruition. The story then takes a turn both sad and serendipitous. Hanka’s aunt, Zwaantje, loved the idea of the project. Having just been diagnosed with cancer, she said ‘I don’t have long to live so I’d like to contribute.’ Thus the name Soete Swaan – which means ‘Sweet Swan’ – is a tribute to her.

With the recipe now perfected, Soete Swaan used the money from Zwaantje to build a wooden stall which they set up outside a Jeffrey’s Bay shopping centre every Saturday. The stroopwafels were an immediate hit and sold like literal hot cakes. However, from a business perspective, a once-weekly stall is not tremendously scalable. Further effort and investment was required to increase production, distribution and sales in order to turn Soete Swaan into a fully-fledged enterprise with a skilled, permanent workforce it could pay full-time salaries to.  

Then, just as the aspiring waffle wizards were outgrowing the kitchen in the skills centre, another stroke of good fortune intervened. ‘A customer of mine (at the time Derk ran a marketing company in Holland) visited the facility, loved what we were doing and wanted to invest. Through this investment we were able to completely renovate a building that belonged to Victory4All and so we had our own bakery.’

But, as anyone who has started their own business will tell you, by far the most arduous obstacles to overcome are the initial ones. As Derk puts it, ‘We had the people, the skills and the facility. Yet in order to meet our goal of being self-sufficient by the end of 2022, we still needed a lot of expensive industrial equipment for the bakery. We needed at least €10 000 (R170 000) to set ourselves up with the basics.’

With Derk, as with any entrepreneur worth their salt, it was the maverick spirit of throwing caution to the wind and being willing to do whatever it takes that won the day. In order to realise the capital required for the bakery equipment, Derk made a fundraising video on Instagram which he describes as ‘silly’. Silly it may have been, but strategically it could not have been more astute. Proving true the adage that one good turn deserves another, the video was picked up and promoted by Dutch mega-influencer Bas Smit and the money was raised in a day. The Soete Swaan bakery was ready to rock. 

Making the all-important stroop that sticks the wafels together.

Family Meeting

However, for the operation to become 100% independent, one crucial piece of the puzzle remained missing: a bakery manager. As luck would have it, Derk did not have to look far to find the right woman for the job. Deidre Thompson, who had been looking after Derk and Hanka’s young son, is a formidable baker and, as Derk puts it, ‘a born entrepreneur’. Soon the die was cast and Deidre was running the bakery like a well-oiled machine. 

‘We had always wanted to build something to hand over to local people instead of everything being done by the Dutchies,’ says Derk with a laugh. ‘So when I left and handed over the reins, Deidre really came into her own and is now an exceptional boss. In fact she’s a lot  more than that. Because of their adverse personal and social circumstances, those working in the bakery need a lot of attention and direction, so Deidre is as much a mother to nine youngsters as she is the manager of a bakery and boss of a business. She is amazing and we are really blessed to have her.’

Soete Swaan ticks all the right boxes: 100% handmade by local artisans using 100% local ingredients; 0% chemical or synthetic additives; providing skills development and income generation for disadvantaged local youngsters and an irresistibly delicious Dutch confectionery new to the South African palate. The fledgling brand is thus in possession of an identity, positioning and origin story to be fiercely proud of. 

With the goal of the bakery attaining capacity having finally been reached, the focus now turned to marketing, sales and distribution. Soete Swaan started small in its search for the right resellers. They went to farm stalls and coffee shops in the immediate vicinity, handing out samples and telling their story. The sampling campaign and word of mouth began to build traction and soon the singular stroopwafels were being stocked first in the local retailers in Jeffrey’s Bay and Humansdorp and then further afield to selected Spar outlets in Gqeberha and Cape Town.

According to Derk, in order to meet running costs and pay the full-time staff, the bakery needs to produce and sell 24 000 stroopwafels a month. No mean feat for a small community-based start-up employing 9 enthusiastic young bakers and waffle-makers. Even though Derk does most of the behind-the-scenes admin and strategy from Holland, it became imperative to find someone to run the sales and CRM side of the operation in South Africa. Michelle Mats has been doing a phenomenal job in this regard and Voys has rapidly become her #1 tool for establishing and maintaining contact with resellers.

Bakery manager Deidre Thompson sharing a light moment with one of her charges.

The Power of Dreams 

Derk first met Nealin Wabani at Victory4All’s skills centre. ‘It was immediately apparent to me how clever he was,’ says Derk. ‘But, because he cannot talk, it was very difficult to find him a job. In a way, Nealin was the catalyst for Soete Swaan – it made me realise we had to dream bigger to ensure intelligent kids with handicaps or disabilities didn’t fall through the gaps.’ Nealin is currently in charge of stocktaking at Soete Swaan.   

‘Those youngsters are so happy with their jobs,’ continues Derk. ‘I visited in April and I was in tears because I saw the impact we had made. It was our dream and it’s really working now. The most priceless thing is the feeling for them to be part of something bigger instead of feeling useless and unable to contribute.’ 

Indeed, the sense of pride, self-esteem and independence that emanates from the nine dashing waffle warriors is palpable. And the change that has been made to the lives of people who might otherwise have wilted in seclusion or exclusion is immeasurable. When the desire to simply make things better than they are is an invincible one and hard work, determination, sacrifice and relentless pursuit of one’s goals heed this call, sweet success is bound to be the outcome.   

Spreading the sweet, sweet love.

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