Bag­ging the energy of the sun in South Africa


Re­abetswe Ng­wane and busi­ness part­ner Thato Kgatl­hanye per­son­ify the buz­zphrase so­cial entrepreneurship. The pair have found an in­no­va­tive so­lu­tion to one of so­ci­ety’s most press­ing prob­lems — af­ford­able energy in eco­nom­i­cally de­pressed com­mu­ni­ties with­out re­li­able ac­cess to elec­tric­ity. They have de­signed school­bags, through their com­pany Rethaka, that do more than carry books — they help chil­dren read them too.

Rethaka re­cy­cles plas­tic bags — easy to come by across the South African land­scape — turn­ing them into school bags which have built in so­lar power packs. These packs are charged all day in the sun­light while the chil­dren are at school, and are fully charged when the sun goes down pro­vid­ing much need light for do­ing home­work — or walk­ing home safely.

This clever and sim­ply so­lu­tion to a per­sis­tent prob­lem was borne out of a school as­sign­ment. Thato Kgatl­hanye came up with the idea and un­sur­pris­ingly the young woman was named first run­ner up at last year’s (2014) Anzhisha Prize. The prize, now in its fifth year, awards young en­trepreneurs from Africa who have de­vel­oped and im­ple­mented in­no­va­tive so­lu­tions to so­cial chal­lenges or have started suc­cess­ful busi­nesses in their com­mu­ni­ties.

As a run­ner up, Kgatl­hanye bagged US$15 000, which be­came the seed cap­i­tal to take her so­lu­tion and con­vert it into what it has be­come — a suc­cess­ful busi­ness rooted in the North West com­mu­nity. This all with the help of her busi­ness part­ner Ng­wane, who says that their busi­ness is not only light­ing the way for learn­ers, but is also cre­at­ing jobs for their com­mu­nity in the North West province of South Africa. In this way, she says, they are tack­ling two so­cial prob­lems with one so­lu­tion — help­ing chil­dren learn and in­ject­ing jobs into the area.

“We cur­rently have eight em­ploy­ees who are re­spon­si­ble for the en­tire process from the col­lec­tion, wash­ing and sort­ing of the plas­tic bags, through to the fi­nal stitch­ing and de­liv­ery of the Re­pur- pose School­bags,” said Ng­wane.

The ground- break­ing pair’s cre­ative juices keep flow­ing and they have now de­vel­oped a range of lux­ury clutch bags us­ing the same abun­dant waste ma­te­rial. Like any sus­tain­able busi­ness, the pair are con­tin­u­ing to in­no­vate. Says Ng­wane: “There def­i­nitely are fu­ture plans to cre­ate more in­no­va­tive, sus­tain­able and func­tional prod­ucts. But we have cho­sen to con­tinue fur­ther­ing our reach with re­gards to the Re­pur­pose School­bags for now.”

Rethaka em­ployee Maphefo Maithufi is also a con­sumer of the prod­uct she helps to man­u­fac­ture. She is de­lighted to be work­ing for the com­pany and says that the school­bags have made a di­rect pos­i­tive con­tri­bu­tion to her daugh­ter’s ed­u­ca­tion. As if that isn’t enough ben­e­fit for her fam­ily, Maithufi says that it also helps her man­age down the house­hold bud­get.

“The bags we make have also made a dif­fer­ence in my daugh­ter’s ed­u­ca­tion as she now has a bag, and is able to use the so­lar light at night to study and fin­ish her home­work, which also helps us save money on buy­ing more can­dles”.

In South Africa where the coun­try’s energy short­age has led to rolling black­outs ev­ery week, the school­bags Rethaka makes might just be the so­lu­tion for ev­ery­one who needs to burn the mid­night oil for study and work. Even for those who are lucky enough to never have a short­age of lights, per­haps this is a way for any­one any­where to con­serve energy — af­ter all sun­light is free and clean — the buzz­words of the fu­ture of energy glob­ally.

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