Repurpose Schoolbags: The upcycled companion for African schoolkids

A school assignment that became a business idea has encouraged over 10,000 kids from six African countries to attend school regularly.

by Nikhil Sreekandan

“Resourcing Africa’s Future”, reads the tagline of Rethaka, a for-profit social enterprise, based in Rustenburg, South Africa. Founded by Thato Kgatlhanye and her friends in 2013, Rethaka utilises the limitless amount of plastic waste polluting its town and nearby settlements, and then turn them into 100% recycled plastic schoolbags – all for local, disadvantaged children.

Branded Repurpose Schoolbags, the organisation brings together recycling, solar power generation, and education for children. Designed to do more with less, the bags are made from recycled plastic bags and have an integrated solar panel on their flaps that charges on the way to school. The children can then transform the bag into a desk lamp for when they study in the dark at night. The bags are also fitted with reflective material to increase the children’s visibility to motorists on their long walks to and from school.

Solar panels are located on top of the Repurpose Schoolbags so they can charge when children walk to school. © Repurpose Schoolbags

Since its inception, the organisation has hit a number of milestones, picking up a number of international awards as well in the process. Phemelo Segoe, the Brand Manager at Rethaka (Pty) Ltd says, “Repurpose Schoolbags has changed more than 10,000 lives. We have since been featured on multiple intentional platforms namely CNN, BBC and The Wall Street Journal. We’ve also won a number of awards since 2013, but most recently we won the ELLE International Impact Award 2016.”

It was initially an idea that sparked as part of an assignment for a design course in college. “It was a school assignment before a business idea. The aim was to solve 3 prevalent social issues namely plastic pollution, unemployment and no electricity with a single product,” says Phemelo.

Thato and her friends (they have since left the company) were looking around for something accessible, that could form the basis of a business when they noticed all the school kids who used plastic bags to carry their books to school. This led them to think whether it would be possible to turn plastic bags into a textile that can be sewn to make backpacks. With no prior manufacturing experience and no cash, all they had was this idea and the determination to make it work.

Entering start-up competitions, the organisation managed to win R300,000. © Repurpose Schoolbags

Refusing to give up due to their lack of capital, they decided to join start-up competitions and apply for grants, putting all their energy into writing the best proposals. Their plan worked as they came third at the SAB Foundation Social Innovation Awards and took home R300,000 (£17,000).

With the money acquired and after some trial and error, the team managed to set up a small workshop where the plastic could be processed into textile, after which workers used industrial sewing machines to turn the material into bags. By then, they had also set up their own method for collecting plastic waste from landfills and schools – and the raw material started coming in. Even local high school students volunteered to run plastic bag collection campaigns.

That’s when Thato’s landlord made the observation that the bags could work even better if it could light up. Thato’s mother always used to tell her how they would have just one candle to last an entire week, which would burn out fast, leaving them unable to study at night. In a country where people still live without electricity, it made total sense to invest in the idea and it led to the solar charger with a sun reflector to be slipped into a pocket on the outside of the bag.

The solar energy gathered during the day can then be turned into a lamp allowing children to study at night. © Repurpose Schoolbags

It would get charged whilst the kids walked to and from school and at night they can remove the charger and attach it to a glass lantern, for around six to nine hours of light. To make sure the charger is used for its intended purpose, there are no other USB ports provided.

The project’s potential social impact and its innovation to bring plastic recycling and solar energy together to affect the education of African children hugely differentiated Repurpose Schoolbags from other start-ups. They found it pretty easy to bring on board what they call ‘Giving Partners’, which are companies and institutions that purchase or give donations towards Repurpose Schoolbags on behalf of the disadvantaged children.

“Our Repurpose Schoolbags are sold to companies who use them for their CSI projects. Companies like Unilever, Coca-Cola and Redbull have all purchased bags to sponsor learners living in homes without electricity,” says Phemelo.

The women-owned business has already recycled over 400,000 plastic bags. © Repurpose Schoolbags

Each and every schoolkid who receives a repurpose schoolbag is carefully handpicked, ensuring that each child who gets one needs one. “We identify schools in need of assistance, find out whether there are learners that fit the description we provide and work with the teachers to identify recipients,” explains Phemelo.

What started as a school assignment, after years of determined hard work has now become a 100% women-owned business that has created 20 jobs, recycled over 400,000 plastic bags, and continues to support the education-hungry children of Africa.

“Start. Wherever you are, with whatever you want to do, start and never stop out-executing yourself. Execution is more important than your idea.”

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