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.