The school bag that turns into a light at night

12 May 2015

When South African childhood friends Thato Kgatlhanye and Rea Ngwane finished high school, they knew they wanted to start something that helped young people and underprivileged communities. At age 18, they founded Rethaka, a social enterprise they hoped would do just that – although it would be two years before they figured out how.

“Yes, it is a bit funny that you would register a business without a business idea,” says Kgatlhanye. “But at the heart of it we actually wanted to do great things. And when the idea of the Repurpose Schoolbags came to us, we worked on it tirelessly.”

Repurpose Schoolbags is an environmentally friendly innovation made from “upcycled” plastic shopping bags with built-in solar technology that charges up during the day and transforms the bag into a light at night.

The project targets school children in underprivileged communities, allowing them to study after dark in homes without electricity. The bags are also designed with reflective material so that children are visible to traffic during their walk to and from school.

Introducing a sustainable solution

The pair spent the first eight months of 2014 piloting the schoolbags, followed by producing 1 000 bags from August to December.

The company has eight full-time employees in their factory in Rustenburg, but Kgatlhanye says they will employ an additional 12 people this year to help meet their production target of 10 000 bags for 2015.

The initiative has been targeting corporate social investment budgets where companies can sponsor the production of bags. Each bag costs R250 (US$20), which covers the cost of employee wages and production.

They plan to also produce bags for conferences and events, where participants will be able to choose to give the bag to underprivileged children after the event. The company has already signed up some major clients, including Standard Bank and PwC.

Kgatlhanye says they hope to develop other products along the same idea, such as raincoats, but at the moment they are focused on ramping up production of the schoolbags and expanding into other communities.

More ‘social’ than ‘entrepreneur’

While the co-founders (now both 22) have had to think like entrepreneurs to ensure the business remains sustainable, Kgatlhanye says becoming an entrepreneur was almost a by-product of Repurpose Schoolbags.

She says that as a child she never dreamed of owning her own business, but she knew she wanted to do something positive for the community that surrounded her, an awareness she owes to her upbringing and particularly her mother.

“My mom cares about people like you wouldn’t imagine . so I grew up in an environment where I was always conscious of caring for other people and having a sense of empathy,” she says.

“And thank God I had that upbringing – where I could understand there are people out there that don’t have as much as I do. And that if I find creative ideas on how to give them what it is they need, then we could both be fine ¶hellip and brave the world together.”

Alternative sources of funding

Kgatlhanye describes her business journey as “instinctive” and she has some great tips to help young entrepreneurs grow their businesses without capital.

For starters, she believes there are alternatives to funding that don’t require giving away equity in the business to potential investors. For example, Kgatlhanye has benefited from a number of mentorship and entrepreneurship programmes.

She was selected for an internship in New York with marketing guru and American best- selling author Seth Godin, and was picked as one of 18 South African social entrepreneurs to attend the 10-day Red Bull Amaphiko Academy last year. She was also selected as the 2014 first runner-up of the Anzisha Prize, where she won $15 000.

“My advice is simple: bootstrap and find competitions to enter your business idea into,” she highlighted during an online Q&A session on the Anzisha Prize’s Facebook page earlier this year.

“Firstly, it is a great way to get free business support and advice. Secondly it’s a great networking opportunity to meet high-profile business people – who usually judge these competitions – and potentially get mentorship from them. Finally, if you end up a winner, you will not only get a cash prize but also get some PR out of it.”

However, most importantly, Kgatlhanye advises young entrepreneurs to trust their gut and admits that she has decided to lose mentors in the past simply because they shared different visions.

Separating business and friendship

As friends, Kgatlhanye and Ngwane have managed to work well as business partners. But for many, going into business with a friend has led to the end of a friendship.

“One thing that’s key is when you form a business partnership with your friend, act as though you met that person that day,” says Kgatlhanye.

“So you can’t say because you’ve known your friend since grade 4, you’ll work well together in business. No – you have known them since you decided to start a company together. So get to know your business partner as a business partner, not as a friend, because business and friendship is a different ball game.”

Another trick that proved beneficial for the co-founders was to get a business coach to help them get comfortable in their business relationship.

“And I think that’s the best advice. Get a business coach, be honest, leave the ego at the door and hustle.”

This is an edited version of a story first published on The Anzisha Prize. Published here with kind permission.