How the Wonderbag can help you save money

Angelique Ruzicka talks to social activist and entrepreneur Sarah Collins about how her invention called the ‘Wonderbag’ has changed people’s lives and helped her in her endeavors in uplifting the poor socially and economically.

A visit to the food market in St Georges Mall in Cape Town showed me the business benefits and freedom the Wonderbag, a heat retention product that doesn’t use any electricity or gas to slow cook food, gives to people. A food vendor was using a Wonderbag to keep his stew warm and as there were no electricity or gas connections to help him do this, the bag was the perfect contraption to help him in his business venture and keep his customers happy.

I relayed this to Sarah Collins, founder of the Wonderbag, who demonstrated how even at the prototype stage the Wonderbag was changing people’s lives.  “Within three months I saw an incredible shift in the economic status of homes. And independence! Suddenly children could go to school because grandmothers weren’t reliant on making them collect firewood all day. All these kind of things that you didn’t expect. And I went ‘Oh my goodness this is it’,” she beams.

The Wonderbag was founded in South Africa six years ago by Collins. The product allows food that has been brought to the boil by conventional methods to continue to cook for up to 12 hours, without using any additional energy source.

It was born out of a practical desire by Collins to continue cooking during a bout of Eskom load shedding. With Eskom warning recently that a nationwide blackout could result in its power grid taking two weeks to recover, products like this are again being put into the spotlight.

“In 2008 when we had load shedding we had rolling black outs night after night. I woke up in the middle of the night and woke up my housemate. I said ‘My grandmother used to cook with cushions in a box on the farm. My grandmother used to have this box with cushions that she used to put her food into. And it was always produced the most delicious stews and ox tails’,” she says.

Following this she made a thousand cushions, put them into boxes and got the prototypes into 500 grandmother’s homes around South Africa. “Then I met an extraordinary women on an aeroplane who was wearing a beautiful dress. When I commented on it she asked if she could make me one but I told her that I don’t wear dresses. I told her about my bags and I drew one on the back of a South African Airways napkin and the next day from the fabric of her dress she made me a Wonderbag. And that was the start,” says Collins.

Since opening its doors, Wonderbags has grown exponentially. Locally, the bags retail between R200 and R400 and are available online at Kalahari, Takealot, Yuppiechef and purchases can also be made on the company’s own website.

The product has become available overseas too, including the United Kingdom and America. It has appealed to people in first world countries because of its environmental and social contributions. Not only is it an energy efficient way of cooking but for every Wonderbag sold in a first world country one is donated to an under privileged family in South Africa.

“It’s been an amazing journey. In the United States you can buy two on Amazon for $50 (R537), so it’s about the same price. In the UK they are also for sale on Amazon. We are on Amazon in the US, Canada, UK, France and Germany and we have agents in the Middle East. We do a lot of stuff in refugee camps so we work with the United Nations,” says Collins.

What’s next for Wonderbags?

Plans are afoot to expand the business but Collins admits that the company is in need of funding to attain its goals. “We are looking for our first round of investment now. It’s quite a frightening thing to be doing. We have got to a point now where we have come out of a start-up and we have an infrastructure, an executive team, a head office between San Francisco, London and Durban, and we are big enough now where we need to start raising some proper capital. I would love it to be a South African based investor – a strategic partner. We are looking for about $5 million (R54 million).”

Collins also recognises that she can’t do it all and that the business would benefit from fresh blood. “We are looking to make more Wonderbags, hire more people and expand geographically. The demand for Asia, South America and India is massive and we just started in Mexico. But we need to start spending money now. And I can’t carry on. I travel in and out of New York every week and as much as I love it we have to start putting more in. I want to step aside as a CEO. We have a brilliant CFO and a CMO. We need to bring people on board.”

The enigma that is ‘Sarah Collins’

Last year Collins was listed as one of Fortune’s most powerful women entrepreneurs, but she still confuses people. “People often ask me ‘What are you?’. Are you a social entrepreneur?” laughs Collins.

But I get the feeling that she wants to be defined as more than just a social entrepreneur. She worked for many years in the non-governmental organisation sector and even dabbled in politics but nothing allowed her to ensure the change and upliftment she wanted to create until she started her own business.

She describes Wonderbags as her ‘legacy project’ and the ‘game changer’. “When I was 15 I said I was going to be the first female president in South Africa. But I did my stint and found I don’t want to be in politics. If you are going to get something done you have to go the commercial route and that is what I completely believe in.”

Collins adds that she also doesn’t believe in giving aid for ‘aid’s sake’. “We have created an interesting energy exchange. We look at the most needy situations – about three billion women are still cooking on open fires every day – and the biggest killer in the world of children under the age of five is indoor pollution. So we look at communities where there are predominantly women, predominantly grandmothers and people living on the poverty line. Then we run workshops and ‘Wonder Women’ then support communities with meals. The bags are never free. There needs to be an exchange. We don’t believe in blanket giving of Wonderbags because that defeats the object of giving of empowerment,” explains Collins.

Undeniably, Wonderbags help to save time, energy and money and the product uplifts communities in a positive way. Wonderbags are more than just bags, which surely makes Collins more than just a social entrepreneur.