Sarah Collins is one of those rare people who have found their life’s purpose in a simple, practical and specific activity that combines business with social justice. Look up the Wonderbag – it’s a simple cotton bag filled with styrafoam chips; a non-electric, heat retaining cooker that is, quite simply, revolutionising the lives of women in rural communities.
‘Once food has been brought to the boil by conventional methods of gas, electricity or fire, the Wonderbag’s insulation abilities continue to cook food for up to 12 hours, without the use of any additional energy source. For rural women, this means that the daily chore of seeking, cutting down and carrying home wood for cooking can become a weekly instead of daily chore. I have seen its effects; it really is a life changer.’
Sarah grew up in rural, apartheid-era South Africa in the 1970s on a farm in KZN. It was there that Zulu women instilled in her a deep sense of community and equality.
‘I think I was born with the need to help others and make things equal. At home, I never felt equal to the boys, so I was always looking for ways to help other girls and women feel better about their circumstances. It gave me a sense of belonging. My childhood inspired my life’s work of empowering women who live below the poverty line, through grassroots efforts.’
Sarah’s grandmother was a huge influence; Sarah describes her as ‘an hilarious, outspoken woman, never apologetic about who she was and what she stood for.’
‘My grandmother unwittingly laid the groundwork for me to become the activist I am today. She gave me strength and courage – and it was in her home that I first saw a cardboard box with cushions in it that she used for cooking food, after bringing it to the boil. That was the Wonderbox. Seeing it gave me my ‘lightbulb’ moment to create the Wonderbag.’
Passion is a word we hear a lot these days. When you see true passion, it cannot fail to inspire. Sarah’s vision as creator of the Wonderbag goes far beyond making and selling this simple tool for saving fuel, time and money.
‘For me, the facts are simple. Poverty across the globe is getting worse. One billion people will never see a health worker in their lives. Three billion people cook on open flames every day, which is killing them at the same time as feeding them. Today, globally, fewer people have access to antiretroviral treatment than they did five years ago. Collectively, the world seems to be failing when it comes to providing health care, aiding refugees, honouring human rights and fighting both poverty and abuse against women.
‘Did you know that 82% of girls in Africa are raped while collecting firewood? That’s up from 62% in 2009! This means they’re not in school in order to get educated and change their circumstances.
‘Deforestation and charcoal trafficking is at its worst, with global warming and climate change being the inevitable result. Fuel for cooking is running out in Africa and rhino poaching and the degradation of our natural resources is at an all-time crisis.
‘As gloomy as all this sounds, I honestly believe that with the right tools, resources and people in place, we can make a difference. I know now that the solution to our world’s challenges lie in creative, multi-pronged models that incorporate business, human philanthropy and kindness in action. We have to do it. There is no other way to do business in the world we live in.’
Beautiful, efficient and nutritious
The Wonderbag is sturdily made, looks good, and is increasingly found in the kitchens of affluent families in Africa, Europe and America because it is a practical way to both cook and retain heat. This means that family members eating at different times don’t warm food in the microwave; they simply lift the top cushion, dip into the pot, and replace the top cushion snugly so that the pot retains its heat. The Wonderbag’s slow, low-temperature cooking means that essential nutrients and juices, so often lost with conventional cooking, are retained.
For every Wonderbag sold around the world, a contribution is made to the Wonderbag Foundation, which puts more bags into the hands of women who need them most.
To date, Sarah has sold over a million Wonderbags globally. The former CEO of Unilever, the extraordinary Paul Polmon, is a fan; not only did he partner with Sarah’s company years ago, bundling the Wonderbag with one of Unilever’s products, he also took a bag to the World Economic Forum in Davos to show the world what a simple idea, replicated globally, could do.
‘For Unilever, partnering with us was good for their own business. It increased their bottom line and cemented customer loyalty, showing in a very practical way what Unilever believes in. They demonstrated that doing good is good for business.’
Mark Rutte, the Dutch Prime Minister, was so impressed by the Wonderbag that he asked Sarah to present the idea at the United Nations, where she explained the bag’s potential to end deforestation, prevent diseases related to smoke inhalation, save labour for Africa’s overworked women and save time, thus getting girls back in school.
Jane Goodall, revered as one of the world’s leading conservationists, is also a great supporters and friend to the Wonderbag.
Having started the company in 2008, how has Sarah made such incredible progress in eleven years?
‘There is no rulebook. I have done it one bag, one homestead, one community at a time. It really helps to have passion and purpose, because believe me, for every right move you make, you’ll also make several mistakes in the process. My public profile belies the blood, sweat and tears that go into an average eighteen-hour day, seven days a week, month after month, and year after year. Through my years of experience, these are just a few words of advice I can give:
- There are painful times to get through, but trust your gut. Value advice, but believe in your own instincts for your company and your work! As women, we too easily override our intuition about what’s best. Don’t be nervous about making mistakes – just go for it.
- Grow slowly. Don’t take out debt funding; the stress and anxiety will be your undoing. It always takes more money and more time than you think it will to reach your goals. Be patient.
- Don’t hide your mistakes. Shout them out so you can learn from them and not repeat them. When you acknowledge mistakes and change, you grow.’
Sarah is both a business woman and a poverty activist.
‘I believe businesses and aid agencies can come together under a common cause that the best business models of the future will sell responsible, solution-orientated products and services that can scale ethically. Every woman in Africa is a potential entrepreneur, but if they spend up to eight hours collecting firewood and water, and cooking, how can they ever have time to earn an income or tend to their agricultural land and sell produce?
‘Africa needs economic stimulation in rural communities to ease the burden on urbanisation. If we can allow women to take their rightful place as entrepreneurs and matriarchs of their homes, we will significantly shorten the gap to fill tummies, we’ll get children into school and allow girls the freedom to pursue the things they want to do.
‘If you break it down, food is the basis of health. So if money is saved in households due to innovations like the Wonderbag, then more food and better nutrition can be made available to children and families, which in turn eases the demands on healthcare systems.
‘Through the use of the Wonderbag, we’ve proven that a 90% reduction can be made in the use of charcoal and wood for cooking. This means that there is the opportunity for regrowth and the regeneration of the trees and natural resources that local people are being forced to use to survive. In communities where the Wonderbag is in every household, we’re seeing better health in children, specifically fewer eye infections caused by smoke. We’re also seeing that when women have more time, they get to take better care of their children and can start small-scale enterprises that have the potential to uplift entire communities.’
Wonderbags are mostly sold through agents, but can also be found in outlets in KZN such as Outdoor Warehouse, Ballito Lifestyle Centre, and others. Also buy from the Wonderbag website: www.wonderbagworld.com
Prices vary, based on size and materials used, and range from R255.00 – R900.00. Every bag bought has the effect of donating a bag to a household somewhere in Africa which needs it and cannot afford it.
Sarah’s role model and favourite quote?
‘I am inspired by the women of Africa and the common Zulu saying, ‘Alone we walk fast, but together we walk far.’