Green energy startup gives light to school kids

Updated on 22 January 2015

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Green energy startup gives light to school kidsTwo young South Africans have found an innovative way to address a challenge that many children in disadvantaged communities face – the lack of electricity to study and get homework done at night.

Rustenburg-basedReabetswe Ngwane and Thato Kgatlhanye (both aged 22) founded Repurpose Schoolbags, an initiative that creates schoolbags fitted with a solar panel which charges during the day, and transforms into a light at night, allowing children from off-grid households to study after dark.

They share the inspiration behind their socially driven idea and their future plans for more green innovations.

Our focus is on transformational green innovations that choose to redefine societal problems into solutionsRepurpose Schoolbags is the first to come, and as a startup we are learning from all our experiences and hope to use these to propel our success as we grow.

We were founded in 2011 under Rethaka (Pty) Ltd, the force behind the social innovation known as “Repurpose Schoolbags”. We are not a charity, but a purpose-driven business that does what is right, not what is easy.

Designed to do more with less, Repurpose schoolbags are made from 20 plastic bags. The sturdy schoolbag bags are distributed to children too poor to afford book bags.The design also integrates reflective material ensuring safety and visibility of a child as he or she walks to school. We inspire a sense of dignity and are changing the way the world tackles problems surrounding better access to education.

The Repurpose Schoolbag idea was not a magical light-bulb moment. It started out as an assignment I had done in varsity and at this point it was just a backpack made from recycled plastic. I then told Rea about it and together we decided to push the idea and prototype it further to what it is today. We had registered our company when we were 18 and decided this would be the first viable business venture to pursue.

At the heart of developing the idea, was thinking differently about what the journey of getting educated looks like for a child coming from a low-income household. We realised that we had an opportunity to solve some of the problems that children in our community face while also looking after the environment. For example the integration of the solar component is necessary as some would love the privilege of burning the midnight oil, but they literally cannot afford to do and are faced with ‘rationing’ candles. Also, walking long distances without any safety measures in place, called for the integration of reflective material for increased visibility.

“We inspire a sense of dignity and are changing the way the world tackles problems surrounding better access to education”

We looked around in our community and there was nothing that excited us. So for us it was a challenge to say ‘If there’s nothing in Rustenburg that we want to be a part of as young people, we can actually do something about it and register our company.’ So we did exactly that – we do remarkable work that makes a difference in other people’s lives.

As Rea and myself do not have a manufacturing background, we learned a lot of lessons during our prototyping phase. Because of persistence and the determination to create a product we could be proud of we got over our initial hurdles.

We have been blessed with some awards and recognition on our journey thus far, we were award recipients at the 2013 SAB Innovation awards, The Anzisha Prize, SA Innovation Summit, CPSI through which we received cash prizes which we have used as start-up capital. We have also received business support from Redbull Amaphiko and Standard Bank who have been crucial in our business development.

From a social start-up perspective, its been great to see the growth in interest from the corporate world in getting involved with social enterprises. The move towards businesses being more conscious of their contribution to the greater community beyond just their CSR departments has been great. Having the likes of Redbull Amaphiko and Standard Bank support social startups like ourselves is telling of how our chances of being able to scale our business have increased.

Building an empire that leads a green revolution in Africa is an audacious vision. Over the next two year’s time, our focus will be on growing our capacity so that we can put more schoolbags into the hands of children across South Africa. Our social impact will also be seen through the employment opportunities we will create as we grow.

Drop the “aspiring” and get to it! Quit waiting for someone to pick you as an intern or to get that promotion. Pick yourself and start the journey towards finding your greatness today. I always say: “the world is waiting on who you are becoming. How long will you make everyone wait?” Don’t make us wait a day longer!

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