There is a lot of talk right now about the need for more high-impact entrepreneurs in Africa, those people who can make a difference on a large scale and find effective and affordable solutions to some of the biggest challenges facing the continent. Sarah Collins, founder of Natural Balance Global, better known as Wonderbag, is one such high-impact social entrepreneur who has created an empowering solution to affordable and safe cooking practices for women, particularly in rural communities, whilst at the same time creating income generation opportunities for them too. Sarah is a South African adventurer, entrepreneur, and lifelong social activist. She thrives on challenges and has worked tirelessly over the past two decades to inspire change in the realms of gender-equality and environmental sustainability.
Sarah Collins has worked in social development for over twenty years. She spent the majority of her early career in the field of community-based ecotourism, founding two projects in Botswana. She founded an NGO, Take Back the Future, which trains young people to take ownership of their natural resources, game reserves and parks. Sarah also started Woman Forward, a political party in South Africa focused on rural development for women.
Since 2008, the Wonderbag has been her passion and focus. The bag is made from an insulated material in which people can cook anything. Food that has started cooking is placed in the Wonderbag and the insulating properties allow food that has been brought to the boil to finish cooking without the use of additional energy and so significantly reduces carbon emissions. Climate Action sat down with Sarah Collins, Wonderbag’s founder, to find out more.
Having been involved with community-based ecotourism, founding the NGO, Take Back the Future, and founding the Wonderbag business, what has given you the inspiration and drive to achieve so much?
I think the answer is that I grew up in apartheid South Africa- which was quite traumatic in some ways- I became political from a very young age. We were an entrepreneurial family too- my dad said you never say “no” you say “I’ll make a plan”, so that’s how we grew up. We grew up in a solutions based family- instead of looking at something as just a problem we always saw a solution. In Africa we were fortunate to have travelled a lot and spent time in the bush – you become quite resilient. I always wondered why I was constantly involved in social development and my father said I was like that as a young child; I questioned the discrepancies in South Africa. I just deeply care about people and I knew the only way to be successful was to turn my ideas into a business.
Can you explain the inspiration behind the Wonderbag?
It was very simple really, I had my own business in community based tourism in Botswana and everyone there cooks on open fires, the issue was really a lack of firewood. And cooking all day on fires, what worried me was smoke in people’s homes; children were exposed to a lot of fumes. And in 2008 in South Africa we had load shedding; we had no electricity for 4 months- so we had a very intermittent electricity supply. I thought “there has to be something”. My grandma used to cook with cushions; she used to bring food to boil and then put the food inside them. Heat retention cooking is really an age old thing- and I knew there has to be a way we can do this on a big scale- so I made my own cushions and started to experiment. I brought them into communities and really saw the impact they could have. I bumped into a woman on plane- she was wearing a beautiful dress and she said could make them as she had particular contacts at NGO’s – I explained to her about these cushions and she came to me the next day with my first bag! She had spent the whole night having interpreted what I’d said and she’d turned it into the bag! So that was the first of the Wonderbag and she’s now my manufacturing partner and has 2,000 people making them.
The Wonderbag uses significantly less fuel than other forms of cooking and reduces emissions. Could you expand on the environmental benefits?
The bag can reduce the amount of fossil fuels that people use for cooking by 90 per cent. It has a massive impact on carbon released into the environment through cooking. When 7 billion people are cooking you realise the impact something like the Wonderbag can have. Business model we have is selling carbon credits- we harvest the carbon and the energy saved from bags is converted into credits; we save one carbon tonne per bag per year- a really significant amount. We sold our first carbon offset to Microsoft at the end of last year which was a big day for us; it’s taken me 4 years to get verified carbon. So we sold that to Microsoft who announced in May last year that they’re going carbon neutral as an organisation. There’s a huge saving on water as well as the bag uses a quarter of the water you would normally use. So the environmental benefits are absolutely massive.
“The bag can reduce the amount of fossil fuels that people use for cooking by 90 per cent”
Unilever are a now a distribution partner; how did that come about and what are you hoping they will bring to the partnership?
That was quite a chance of luck really. I met with a brand manager from Unilever but there wasn’t much interest initially. But Paul Polman (Unilever’s CEO) saw the bag at the 2010 South Africa World Cup by chance and thought it was an amazing product. They gave it a go and the bag increased its rate of sale to 247 per cent which is the highest increase ever of a Unilever operative sale; it’s unbelievable. Paul called and we met in London and have really developed that partnership- it’s been fantastic from a Unilever perspective because the Wonderbag drives their bottom line. That’s why we went to Davos (for the World Economic Forum); this is a solution that all corporations should be incorporating into their strategies in some form or another. So as one of our distribution partners- it’s helped us get traction and they have huge brand loyalty; they’re trusted and they wouldn’t put something into the market that doesn’t work and isn’t good for consumers.