A schoolbag that, at night, turns on the lights for rural kids to do their homework. This is the innovative brainchild of power team Rea Ngwane (22) and Thato Kgatlhanye (21) who, after four years of work, have developed and successfully launched a community-driven business producing Repurpose Schoolbags.
Friends from childhood, growing up in the rural North West village of Mogwase, the pair now run their company Rethaka Trading from Rustenburg. For years the two entrepreneurs had wanted to start their own company, and got the chance when Kgatlhanye entered a competition run by SAB.
The task was to create an organic product that mimicked the beautiful design of nature. Kgatlhanye’s entry was a handbag that resembled a bird’s nest, for which she won third place – and R300 000 of seed money to start her own business.
The result was Rethaka Trading, a for-profit women-owned company she set up with her friend Ngwane with the purpose of combining business with social good. The company’s main product is their Repurpose Schoolbags innovation, an ingenious idea that does a lot more with less. The bags are designed for schoolchildren from underprivileged communities with little or no electricity. They are made entirely from recycled plastic, and have embedded in them solar panels which charge a lantern during the child’s walk to school. After dark, this provides a light for doing homework, with enough power for 12 hours.
The waste plastic is harvested from landfills and plastic recycling bins the duo have set up outside schools and churches. This plastic then goes through an intensive process of cleaning, debranding and ironing before it is creatively sewed into a stylish design by the team of seven full-time employees at their warehouse in Tlhabane, Rustenburg.
In addition to running her own business, Ngwane is studying a bachelor of commerce degree in marketing management at the University of Johannesburg. She describes herself as a forward-thinker, someone who always has a curiosity about the “other”, the “what else?”
As the operations and financial manager of Rethaka, Ngwane’s role is to cost-effectively and efficiently run the process from acquiring material to manufacturing, final product and inventory control. Ngwane says she is playing her part by being a social entrepreneur, one who mixes business with bettering the lives of others.
Her colleague Kgatlhanye, who refers laughingly to herself as a “struggling billionaire”, is a young South African who believes in second chances. This is the philosophy behind a book she co-authored in 27 days called “Start an empire with a brand”, and in the work she does for school kids who need a second chance at their education.
As the brand and marketing manager of Rethaka, Kgatlhanye ensures that she effectively communicates the company’s green innovations and how they can turn social problems into solutions. She believes she is one of a new generation of leaders, working for change.
Kgatlhanye’s remarkable career includes interning in New York with marketing guru Seth Godin. She was also selected as one of 18 South African social entrepreneurs to attend the 10 day Red Bull Amaphiko Academy in 2013, and is a recent graduate from the Vega school of branding.
Plans for the future include developing a subsidiary luxury brand called Purpo, a range of fashion bags for professional woman marketed as both fashionable and concerned for the environment. The pair are also designing corporate bags for laptops, iPads and notebooks. Ten percent of the sale of these items will go towards manufacturing the solar schoolbags.
Kgatlhanye says the change she wants to see in South Africa is “youth dreaming audaciously”, and the problem of funding for education being eradicated. Ngwane dreams of the day when South Africans will stop seeing differences between themselves, stop defining each other by race. Until then, these women say, they will continue to uncovering opportunities for change.