Working wonders with a simple idea

Humanitarian projects and corporate social investment initiatives need to have commercial roots in order to be sustainable, believes Sarah Collins, the passionate founder and head of Natural Balance which produces the Wonderbag.

She has been labelled a “serial social entrepreneur” – a description that she’s happy to accept as she traverses the globe promoting the Wonderbag. This is essentially a non-electric slow cooker. It is a bag made from two compartments filled with an insulating material that can trap heat. The thinking behind it is that food that is to be cooked can be brought up to a high heat and then placed within the Wonderbag to continue cooking.

Although the Wonderbag was created to save fuel and replace dangerous cooking methods in poor communities, it has taken its initial empowerment mandate a step further and is often found beneath street vendors’ tables or  within stalls at markets where start-up businesses sell foodstuffs. 

The globally successful Wonderbag was essentially born in Durban where Collins was living at the time. She grew up on a farm within an entrepreneurial family and remembers her father teaching her to never say no to a request but rather to say “I’ll make a plan.”

All those years later, the problem she set out to solve was a complex one – the health and economic problems associated with women in rural communities spending hours bent over cooking fires with babies strapped to their backs. Small children suffer as a result of respiratory problems and burns whilst older children – usually girls – spend valuable learning time or are even taken out of school altogether to do household chores and forage further afield for firewood.

Collins moved to Durban in August 2008 after a number of years in eco-tourism in Botswana. This was the beginning of load shedding in South Africa.

She remembers waking up one night and recalling how her grandmother slow cooked meals using cushions to retain heat. The concept of boil, bag and slow cook was born.

However, this only began to take the form of a Wonderbag during a flight to Johannesburg. Collins noticed a woman wearing a beautiful dress made out of local Shweshwe fabric. The two got talking and Collins shared her Wonderbag idea. Her fellow passenger, who was the head of an NGO called Youth for Survival which focused on women’s empowerment, showed up on her doorstep the next day with the first Wonderbag.

Initially, she says, Wonderbags were made using recycled polystyrene, something that they got for nothing as no-one wanted it. “As we started to turn out hundreds of bags, people started to charge us. We were creating a demand,” she recalls. This necessitated an about turn and they sourced another unwanted waste material that had thermal and insulating properties.

Sales wise, Wonderbag only went mainstream in 2011. Although this started with South Africa, the UK and Europe are now firmly entrenched markets and Collins began selling in America via Amazon this year. To date, more than 700 000 bags have been sold.

By the end of 2012, over 2 000 people were sewing Wonderbags. The sewing was outsourced to various highly competitive community based machinists.

But Collins’ two greatest challenges as an international operation were distribution and developing a large, streamlined production line. Growing sales necessitated a bigger, centralised production facility.

Initially, she looked at opening sewing facilities in other countries. However, the devaluation of the rand meant that it became more viable to keep production facilities in South Africa.

Natural Balance set up a factory to produce Wonderbags for a global market in Tongaat in June 2014, providing 35 jobs.

Now Collins is looking to reach her next target – 100 million Wonderbags in use worldwide. This, she believes, will save 170 million trees, 15,6 billion litres of water and could create 100 000 jobs and generate $3,6 billion in disposable income.