Africa’s Most Innovative Companies: Wonderbag

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VENTURES AFRICA – This week in Africa’s Most Innovative Companies, Ventures Africa speaks to Sarah Collins, founder and designer of the Wonderbag, about finding the balance between the social and commercial aspects of a project, and the importance of tenacity in business.

Inspired by traditional methods for cooking under difficult circumstances – such as her grandmother’s Wonderbox, and the Haybox which was prolific during the Second World War- Collins set to work developing a convenient and modern heat-retaining device to facilitate cooking. Alighting on the bag model made from fabric and recycled polystyrene, the Wonderbag was born.

The Wonderbag addresses a number of important issues on the ground in the developing world, but is also useful for corporations and individuals in developed countries, Collins explains.

“Wonderbag addresses a number of key social development issues in third world regions including education, health and water wastage. At the same time, the business offers an attractive CSR solution to large global corporations by enabling them to significantly cut their carbon emissions. And in developed markets such as the UK and US the Wonderbag is an attractive and convenient cooking device particularly popular with busy mums.”

However, building a commercial business which addresses social need can be a difficult project. According to Collins, business decisions are much more scrutinised and progress more closely monitored when meeting social need is the focus. Conversely, she notes, people may be more open to discussion and potentially more willing to help.

“Ultimately, maintaining a social and commercial balance is difficult, however in my own experience running a business with a social cause is hugely rewarding,” the founder says.

“Wonderbag is the proof that sustainable and socially conscious businesses can still be a commercial and profitable venture. By raising awareness of the benefits and commercial advantages that companies like Wonderbag can offer, we can work towards building a healthier future for both individual communities and global corporations,” Collins claims.

The Wonderbag certainly seems to have propelled Collins to success since its launch in 2008- having distributed more than 600,000 units across South Africa, operating in 22 countries world-wide, and recently having launched a one million bag initiative at the World Economic Forum which aims to have one million bags in use across the world within the next five years. Meeting this goal will have a significant impact, on economies, employment levels, and the environment, Collins explains.

“In just one year, the impact of having 100 million Wonderbags in use across the world would save 170 million trees, 15.6 billion litres of water as well creating as many as 100,000 new jobs and $3.6 billion in disposable income,” she says.

Achieving success has not been an easy path – particularly during a period that has been plagued by a global recession, Collins admits, however, determination will reap rewards.

“Africa is an interesting [continent] that offers many opportunities to those that have the sheer determination and fearless tenacity to grab hold of them. As you can imagine, breaking into any new business arena takes a huge amount of courage and determination – trying to get a loan for start ups are impossibly difficult!”

“When I first set about starting the company most people told me I was mad and that I should get a sensible job. I’m so glad I didn’t listen to them!” Collins confides.

Finally, Collins has some pertinent advice for entrepreneurs trying to develop a business.

“Be true to yourself and your consumers. If you make a mistake, admit to it. Be fearless, what is the worst that can happen? Also don’t try and reinvent the wheel. Instead ask questions, learn from others – people love to help…”