Fledgling social enterprise Rethaka sells backpacks for school kids that do a few things at once: Made from recycled plastic bags, they first of all address the plague of waste from that material. And with a charger powered by solar energy, they provide light for children who lack electricity at home, while also reducing the use of kerosene, which causes a great many accidents and illnesses. Its CEO, 22-year-old Thato Kgatlhanye, founded the company and developed the product, called Repurpose Schoolbags, while attending a university in Johannessburg, South Africa.
If you think it sounds somewhat like a startup I wrote about earlier this year, you'd be right. That one, the Soular Backpack, founded by another college student, Salima Visram, sells a backpack with a solar panel linked to a battery pack which can be charged by the sun, then connected to an LED lamp at home. More about that further below.
Kgatlhanye and several childhood friends, decided not long after graduating from high school to start their own social enterprise, although they had no idea what it would do. (The friends have since left the company). As part of a school assignment for a design course in college, she looked around for something out there she had easy access to that could form the basis of a business. ("So I could make something out of nothing," she says).
When she started noticing all the school kids who used plastic bags to carry their books, she had a eureka moment: figure out a way to turn the material into a textile and then sew the fabric into backpacks. It took some trial and error but, eventually, she and her team produced something that fit the bill.
Then her landlord offered the observation that the backpacks would be even better if they could light up. Kgatlhanye remembered stories her mother told of growing up with one candle that had to last for a week and, if it burned out too soon, she couldn't study at night. In a country where many people still live without electricity, Kgatlhanye realized that, hey, maybe she could do something with that idea-- put a solar panel on the backpack which could be charged while kids were walking to and from school and then used to provide light at night. On the advice of a mentor, she decided not only to create the thing but also to turn it into a business.
With about $50,000 raised from business plan competitions and corporate grants, she found a small local supplier of solar panels. Working at the factory, she devised a way to slip a charger inside a clear, outside backpack pocket sporting a sun reflector. When kids arrive home, they can remove the charger, attach it to a glass lantern and have access to six to nine hours of light. To make sure the product is used for its intended purposes, there are no usb ports that could charge a cell phone. She also worked with industrial design students and an industrial product designer to make the bags as strong and long-lasting as possible. Local high school students volunteer to run plastic bag-collection campaigns; three staff members also regularly visit landfills to gather more plastic. .
Corporate partners buy the bags and then either donate them to a particular school or Rethaka will find a place that has students living in rural areas without access to electricity and, basically, manage the donation process. In addition, because Kgatlhanye has received a lot of inquiries from individuals, she's developing a luxury brand. Using a one-for-one model, it will sell messenger and tote bags; she'll donate backpacks for every product sold.