Changing cooking, one bag at a time

2015-08-18 06:00
Sarah Collins with the Wonderbag.
Photo: supplied

Sarah Collins with the Wonderbag. Photo: supplied

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SARAH Collins is a South African adventurer, entrepreneur and lifelong social activist. She thrives on challenges and has worked tirelessly over the past two decades to initiate change in the realms of gender equality and environmental sustainability.

Collins grew up in rural, apartheid-era South Africa in the seventies. Her childhood inspired her lifework focusing on empowering women living below the poverty line through grass-roots efforts. Educated in the UK and South Africa, she spent much of her school years challenging apartheid. She returned to Africa to launch and run a horseback riding safari business in Botswana, and has since devoted her life to community projects. Among others, her career has seen her run for political office, set up an NGO and help communities to create thriving businesses to support their livelihood.

Her first NGO, Take Back the Future, encouraged young people to take ownership of the Earth’s natural resources. Through this programme, in partnership with the NGO, LoveLife, more than 50 000 South Africans have been through wilderness and bush experiences. Many of those who went through the programme are now senior rangers and conservationists. She also established the first community-based safari company - Planet Okavango. Within 1050sq miles of pristine wilderness, this community built a world-class lodge, Stanley’s Camp, which is now one of the primary sources of tourism for the area. In the political arena, Collins founded the South African political party, Women Forward, which used the party platform to highlight rural development for women. With all of this on her plate, Collins still wanted more. She was looking for something that would change lives, especially the lives of women and children, and make a dramatic difference.

Her “light-bulb moment” occurred in 2008 during a rolling power outage resulting from Eskom’s load-shedding programme. Wanting to cook without electricity, Collins remembered her grandmother taking pots off the stove, wrapping them in blankets and furniture cushions, and hours later having a piping hot, perfectly cooked casserole to serve. This age-old method used the retained heat of the food to complete the cooking process. Collins started experimenting with heat-retention cooking and came up with a convenient, modernised model - the Wonderbag­. The Wonderbag was created to ease the impact of health, social, economic and environmental problems facing Africa and developing countries. Simply put, it enhances rural women’s quality of life by drastically reducing cooking time. These women need less wood to feed their cooking fires therefore they and their children do not inhale hazardous smoke and the risk of burning (food, and worse, children) is reduced. Because the time required for collecting firewood fuel is also reduced, children, especially girls, also have more access to education than they would otherwise.

The small home business has expanded into a global social impact business. It is a dual model company with The Wonderbag Foundation focused on distributing bags to the poor and a commercial retail business called Natural Balance. The busy factories produce hundreds of Wonderbags each day to meet local and international demand, especially as a percentage of the proceeds from each Wonderbag purchased around the world is donated to the foundation, helping them put Wonderbags into the hands of poverty-stricken communities.

Since the bag launched in 2008, over 700 000 have been distributed throughout Africa. She has also taken the Wonderbag to the Middle East where it has been a gracious welcome in vast Syrian refugee camps.

From rural to urban homes, the Wonderbag can be translated into a useful and convenient kitchen tool where time saved cooking becomes quality family time whether at home, camping or on holiday. It’s a great way to keep food warm and makes a wonderful gift. Since 2008, the brand has diversified and now offers aprons, oven gloves and a variety of bags ranging in price from R200 to R400. All bags come with a recipe book.

Collins has been recognised as one of Oprah’s “heroines” in the South African edition of O Magazine, spoken at the World Economic Forum in Davos and was voted one of the most powerful women entrepreneurs of the year by Fortune Magazine for 2013. Other accolades include the 2012 Eskom Innovation Award and the Climate Change Leadership Award 2010 and 2011. In 2012, she was a finalist for the Sustania Award, which is given to a solution, technology, or product that has the potential to build a more sustainable future.

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