Activists in South Africa are working to prove that a simple question can mean the difference between a safe ride home and a nightmare of an evening. With the impending launch of the “Is Polly Here” app in Cape Town in January 2017, Stephanie Simbo and Marine Durand are banking on the idea that bars and bartenders want to be part of creating a safer atmosphere for guests.
The campaign works similarly to one in the U.K., “Ask for Angela,” in which a patron who feels distressed goes up to the bar and asks for someone of that name. Posters educate everyone on the concept in participating bars, and by making the question innocuous, any embarrassment or fear is mitigated. It’s a cue to the bartender that something is wrong, and they can help you get out of the situation.
Where Polly is going one step further is by creating an app that will have five different scenarios: Sick, Bad Date, Unsafe, Assaulted or Lost — each with their own emoticon, so that even when bartenders are too busy, a guest can get help. The organization works with local taxi companies who have been trained, and payment for the rides is allotted for in their budget. The app, which will launch in January 2017, will then follow up with users to make sure everything is okay.
Simbo and Durand met in school and worked as bartenders in Paris — Simbo just so that she could pay off student loans — and both fell in love with the hospitality industry. “The contact with people and trying to know them better and offer them a good service, and the complexity of creating a drink, the chemistry behind it, and all the history were something that I really liked,” says Simbo.
It was always her goal, though, to start a company that would help women, which is how they began Beyond Bars Akademia, which is the company behind Is Polly Here and provides bartending education to former female inmates. Simbo knows firsthand from her brother’s experience that after jail, it’s very difficult to move forward in life, and she wanted to provide that opportunity to women through bartending.
Polly began because, as Simbo and Durand note, women should also be able to go out without fear. “I don’t know about you, but we always have a story or a friend that has a story where she had a terrible date,” Simbo says, “or where she had that creepy guy that was offering her drinks or even worse.” No one wants to cause a scene, though, and “Polly,” Simbo points out, isn’t a very common name (though it was her nickname for quite a while).
Following the January launch in Cape Town, Paris, London and certain U.S. cities, Simbo and Durand plan to bring the app — which will be available on all major smartphone platforms — to Johannesburg and Durban. Their poster system and bartender education have already spread to over 50 bars in Cape Town.
“It should be global,” Durand says. “We’re going to start in the big, big, big cities where you have a lot of people and tourism is really important, and after I hope we’re going to spread it everywhere, because it’s a great opportunity to help people and it’s easy to do.”