When she was 21, Thato Kgatlhanye and her friend, Rea Ngwane, then 22, decided that they wanted to help their community.
“When we looked around there was nothing we wanted to be a part of, so we decided we would build whatever it was that we wanted to be a part of,” Kgatlhanye said.
Now, she’s an award-winning social entrepreneur who has been gaining international recognition for her innovative company Repurpose Schoolbags, which she co-founded with Ngwane. Don’t be fooled, their schoolbags are anything but ordinary — the dynamic young women are addressing three key issues faced by their community in one simple, sustainable solution.
Repurposed Schoolbags brings solar power to families without electricity by capitalizing on a key fact: most school children in South Africa walk to school. The majority walk half an hour each way, but one-fifth of learners walk more than 6 kilometers a day. That means hours walking under the sun. The bags cleverly include a solar panel at the top of the bag, which charges as the children walk to and from school. When the children come home they attach the panel to a console jar and use the light to complete their homework.
This is important in poor communities of South Africa, which often have a sporadic (or non-existent electricity supply. Some areas have access to mainstream power, while other communities have yet to be connected to the grid. This leads to damaged cables and power boxes as well as repeated blackouts as desperate residents attempt to illegally siphon electricity off of the main power supply.
Many residents rely on wood fires to cook their food, while schoolchildren do their homework by candlelight or kerosene lamps. Globally, fuel lamps release 244 million tons of CO2 each year, and pose a significant health risk when their fumes are inhaled. They often lead to instances of burns, especially with children, and cause devastating fires in poverty-stricken neighborhoods.
With the solar panels, which provide up to 12 hours of light, children can complete their homework using clean, sustainable energy with no health risks.
Even those who are connected to the grid are concerned about the future of the national power supply. Rolling blackouts left South Africa in darkness throughout 2014 and 2015 as the main state electricity provider, Eskom, proved unable to meet electricity needs. Years of under-investment and poor maintenance resulted in blackouts across all regions, paralysing businesses, emergency services and schools.
The government has since pledged to build new power plants, while supplementing energy supplies with sustainable sources like wind or hydroelectric plants. The Integrated Resource Plan identifies solar and wind power as major future contributors to national energy. This has prompted investment and innovation in the energy sector, with startup organizations such as Repurposed Schoolbags creating clean energy alternatives which bring light to South African communities.
“It tries to bring green innovation, making kids aware of the benefits of recycling,” Kgatlhanye said in a Red Bull video promoting social entrepreneurship. South Africans use 8 billion plastic bags a year, 96 percent of which end up in a landfill site — a problem for the environment and the animal population. Each Repurpose rucksack is made from 20 recycled plastic bags which are collected by partner schools, community members and individuals.
South African citizens and school children learn more about recycling and environmental sustainability through collection initiatives. After being delivered to the factory the plastic bags are cleaned, heat bonded and cut into patterns before being sewn into rucksacks (you can see the process here). The team also sew reflective strips onto the bags to ensure that the children are easily visible to passing drivers during the long winter months.
Repurposed Schoolbags currently employs 10 people in the factory, they are all locals and mostly women.
After the success of the pilot phase and with the continued support of private and corporate funding, the organization is continuing to grow and Kgatlhanye hopes to employ more community members in the future. Repurposed Schoolbags continues to work with schools and funding partners to target the neediest children. Her efforts have won Kgatlhanye several social innovation awards, including a ministerial award for excellence in public sector innovation.
Cover credit: Sergio Algeri/GYV