Solar schoolbags South AfricaThe Italian physician and educator, Maria Montessori, famously once said: “Our care of the child should be governed, not by the desire to make him learn things, but by the endeavour always to keep burning within him that light which is called intelligence”; and now two girls are helping to ensure that this light continues to burn for school children across South Africa with a rather innovative concept…Leaving school and walking home is so often fraught with danger every day for thousands of school children across Africa. Travelling along busy roads with little to no light only to get home and attempt to complete their homework under similar lighting conditions has long proved a challenging issue with long term societal impacts.Now two school friends turned business partners are looking to change all this, helping to provide for underprivileged communities through an innovative and environmentally friendly concept – the repurpose schoolbag.

The first green initiative from founding company Rethaka, set up by Thato Kgatlhanye and Rea Ngwane, the pair, now 22, are taking full advantage of the overflowing plastic waste in their region and neighbouring communities to upcycle it into 100% recycled plastic schoolbags for local disadvantaged school children.

Not only are the bags made from recycled materials, helping with the environmental issue in the country, but it doubles as a light and features reflective materials, providing a safety aspect so the children are more visible walking home in rush hour traffic.

With a solar panel positioned in the flap of the bag, charging as the children walk to school, it subsequently allows sufficient light walking home and enough to finish their homework in the evenings. Many households have to rely on candle light after dusk, but these are often rationed, so the school bag will also impact positively on family life too.

One of the first obstacles these kids face if not being able to finish their homework. If a child doesn’t have access to light then as soon as the sun goes down there is not time to do anything but sleep,” Co-founder, Thato Kgatlhanye, explains.

The two girls carried out a 6-month trial period at the beginning of last year, distributing the recycled bags to schools across the Rustenburg region, and producing 1,000 bags from the period August to December.

Each bag currently costs R250 (US$20) to manufacture, which helps to cover both the production and employee costs. Producing up to 20 bags a day in its workshop, the company presently employs eight full time workers, with the girls hoping to increase this to 12 by the end of the year to help meet its target to produce 10,000 bags this year alone.

Helping to distribute these upcycled school bags to children, the company has targeted and teamed up with local individuals to achieve funding and corporate social investment in a bid to sponsor the production of each bag, ensuring the process remains sustainable with plenty of room to grow and expand into surrounding African communities.

Of course, it is not always easy to start and run a business, especially at the age the girls are and with a subject so integral and prominent to the region. Challenges have arisen along the way, particularly with the lack of infrastructure for plastic recycling but a quick solution was to simply create this themselves which has resulted in a positive and sustainable outcome.

The children have been encouraged to collect and bring in the plastics themselves and feel involved in the whole process from the very beginning to the end.

The plastic comes to our workshop where we process them into a textile, sew it up with industrial sewing machines and then we distribute,” Kgatlhanye explains.

The concept of recycling and upcycling, although a foreign concept to so many children in the region, has helped to generate interest and knowledge. “Kids are picking up litter around the community,” explains Kgatlhanye.

With distribution underway, the recycled school bag is really a testament to both Thato and Rea and their evident entrepreneurial skills and flair for innovation, even from such a young age. Now clear role models for the children they are helping to provide support to, Thato Kgatlhanye has been recognised for her business ventures; selected for an internship in New York to work alongside the American best-selling author, Seth Godin and in 2014, she was selected as one of the 18 South African social entrepreneurs to attend the 10-day Red Bull Amaphiko Academy.

Perhaps most impressively though, Kgatlhanye was selected as the 2014 first runner-up of the Anzisha Prize, winning $15,000 in prize money.

In an online Q&A session held earlier this year on the Anzisha Prize’s Facebook page, Kgatlhanye explained: “My advice is simple: bootstrap and find competitors to enter your business idea into. Firstly it is a great way to get free business support and advice. Secondly, it’s a great networking opportunity to meet high-profile business people – who usually judge these competitions – and potentially get mentorship from them. Finally, if you end up a winner, you will not only get a cash prize but also get some PR out of it.

Get a business coach, be honest, leave the ego at the door and hustle,” she concluded.

Looking to the future for this young company and both girls hope to develop further products using 100% recycled materials, including different bag designs and raincoats. With major clients including PwC and Standard Bank already on-board, venturing into other communities is assuredly something we will be seeing in the not so distant future for Rethaka and its ingenious school bag concept.