We look back on how Wonderbag not only became a household name in South Africa, but across the world in our #LocalisLekker series. Do you have a favourite proudly South African product? Tell us about it below and you could win yourself a two-night stay at Aquila Private Game Reserve as well as loads of other prizes.
This story was first published in the January 2015 issue of SA Country Life and was updated on 19 June 2019.
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Who’d have thought that one of the most revolutionary non-electric heat retention cookers would be as simple as an African-print beanbag? Writer Andrea Abbott had the pleasure of meeting the Wonderbag’s creator, and learning about the wondrous journey this product has achieved in just a handful of years.
Isn’t it infuriating when you’re slaving away in the kitchen preparing dinner and there’s a power outage? If you’re like me, you boil over with anger while waiting for the lights to come back on, cursing Eskom all the while. Or drive out in search of supper, or make do with cornflakes. But perhaps you’re a person who sees opportunity in adversity; a chance to make a change for the better?
One who did is entrepreneur Sarah Collins, founder of the Wonderbag, a South African-made, ‘powerless’ non-electric heat retention cooker that’s finding its way into kitchens around the world. During those rolling power outages in the bleak times of load shedding in 2008, Sarah thought back to the days when her grandmother would take simmering pots off the stove and insulate them with blankets and cushions. It was a method that retained the heat for hours, with the end result of a perfectly cooked casserole. But it wasn’t Grandma’s own idea.
“Slow cooking is the oldest cooking technology in the world,” says Sarah. Building on that age-old method, she experimented and came up with a more convenient version of Gran’s contraption. Made from traditional shweshwe African-print fabric, the Wonderbag resembles a beanbag filled with repurposed chipped foam and a drawstring at the top to retain the heat. “Moshy Mathe, a township seamstress I met in an airport queue, created the design after I showed her a sketch of my idea,” says Sarah. “At the time of our meeting, she was wearing a shweshwe outfit.”
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No Small Wonder
Initially, the bags were made at Youth for Survival, an NGO in Pretoria, and sold at flea markets. “We sold out at every market we went to,” Sarah says. Rapid growth over 10 years has resulted in a global business that not only has a market in South Africa but the UK, the USA and 32 other countries. According to Sarah, the States has well-established slow cooking culture. “About 68 per cent of people cook with crock pots.”
The bags are sold online through various channels including the Wonderbag website where there is a Shopify option for international customers. Here at home, you can buy a Wonderbag directly through the Wonderbag site, Yuppiechef’s website and stores in Cape Town and Johannesburg, or through Outdoor Warehouse.
We took a tour of the factory in Tongaat on the KwaZulu-Natal North Coast which was set up in July 2014. It’s a happy place, background music just audible above the whirr of sewing machines and the lively chat of 30 or so workers, most of them women.
Globally, according to Sarah, 1.5 million have been sold to date. That’s an impressive figure for a no-plug, fabric slow cooker handmade in little old South Africa. But for Sarah, named one of Fortune magazine’s Top 10 Most Powerful Women Entrepreneurs in 2013, it’s no surprise. From the outset, she knew that Wonderbag “was going to be a global game changer”.
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A New Way of Cooking
It’s a marvellous success story and an inspiration for aspiring entrepreneurs. But there’s another, even better story. And this one’s about making the world a better place. Underpinning the creation of the Wonderbag was Sarah’s long-held wish to ease the impact of health, social, economic and environmental problems that face Africa and developing countries. “I want to see development done successfully and not through failed systems of NGOs,” she says. “My main drivers are female economic empowerment and creating a business that is successful financially, socially and environmentally.”
Wall posters in the Tongaat factory attest to some of these goals, a major one fuel saving and the consequent reduction of carbon footprint. ‘One million people using Wonderbags three times a week means 1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide saved’, announces one poster. ‘5 million paraffin users will save $1.8 billion on fuel in a year’, announces another. “Our general statement is that you can save 60 to 62 per cent of all your cooking fuel requirements through Wonderbag usage,” Sarah says.
Reduced reliance on fossil fuel is always good news for the environment, as is saving trees. In rural areas, cooking over wood fires is still the norm. If Wonderbags are used, the need for firewood is reduced and this translates into hacking down fewer trees.
It also translates into a range of health and social benefits for rural women and girls, who are usually tasked with collecting firewood. So, for example, less time spent collecting wood means girls have more time to go to school and women have more time to spend with their families, or to find ways of earning an income that could lift them out of poverty. And when open fires no longer form a big part of daily life, indoor pollution diminishes and the number of burn injuries are reduced. The demand for Wonderbags in Africa is so great that Sarah and her team are in the process of finalising a partnership with the International Federation of the Red Cross. By using the organisation’s infrastructure and resources on the continent, Wonderbag hope to bring more of the subsidised bags into the hands of communities who need them the most.
And so, an old idea made new is having far-reaching impacts of a kind that Sarah’s grandmother could never have imagined. The journey from flea market to world stage is truly, er, wonderful and I ask Sarah what stands out for her. She tells me there are many highlights, including receiving a vote of confidence from former UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and prime ministers from around the world at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2013. Wonderbag also received the nod from Time Magazine when it joined the list of 50 Genius Companies 2018 and was added to the London Stock Exchange’s 2019 Companies to Inspire Africa report. Sarah was also dubbed as one of Forbes Woman Africa‘s New Wealth Creators earlier this year.
And right up with that is another defining moment for Sarah. “A woman came to me in rural KZN and said she could now afford to send her children to school because of Wonderbag.” Now that’s life changing.
- The foundation distributes bags to the underprivileged through its Buy And Give (BAG) scheme that operates throughout the world. For each Wonderbag bought, a portion of the proceeds is donated to the Wonderbag Foundation. These proceeds are then used to purchase and donate subsidised Wonderbags to families in Africa.
- The Wonderbag Foundation has also launched an initiative called Wonderfeasts which focuses on educating communities about the benefits of using a Wonderbag.
- South Africans (and others across the world) can donate directly to Wonderbag and its initiatives via wonderbag.org/donate.
Do you have a favourite South African product you just can’t live without? Maybe it’s a pair of Tsonga shoes, a delicious collection of Wedgewood Nougat or a box of Ouma Rusks. We want to know about it. Tell us about your favourite item in the form below and stand the chance to win in our #LocalisLekker competition.
Unfortunately this competition is now closed. Keep an eye on website for more giveaways coming soon.
Words Andrea Abbott
Photography Andrea Abbott and supplied