Sun on their backs: solar backpacks for Africa

A young South African entrepreneur is helping to improve the lives of disadvantaged school pupils in her country by providing them with a crucial learning aid – electric light.

Felix Seuffert
Linda Tutmann

Thato Kgatlhanye can hardly believe her luck as she contemplates the mountain of rubbish in front of her: red, green, blue and black bags stacked together in the corner of the dirty yard of an industrial facility. “So much rubbish,” she cheers, kicking at one of the bags. Dangling in the breeze from a clothesline stretched across the yard are a handful of yellow bags. “These ones are clean,” she says, running a finger over the gleaming wet plastic. It is fair to say that there are not many people who can match Kgatlhanye’s enthusiasm for humble plastic bags. Kgatlhanye’s ability to turn this simple raw material into something much more beneficial has taken the daughter of a taxi driver a long way from her roots in the small town of Mogwase outside Rustenburg. She has shaken Bill Gates’ hand and given a TED Talk. The 24-year-old entrepreneur gives women jobs to help them feed their families. But her main focus is on providing school children in rural South Africa with a means of doing their homework during the hours of darkness. The plastic bags currently stored in the yard and arranged by colour or drying in the sun on the clothesline will soon be transformed into backpacks. Each plastic schoolbag comes with a small solar panel – complete with power bank – tucked in an outside pocket. During the day, the unit collects energy, which the children can then use to power a light when the sun goes down (the huts they live in often have no electricity). The company behind it all, Rethaka, now produces some 10,000 school backpacks a year.

Changing people’s lives

Rustenburg is a two-hour drive from the booming metropolis of Johannesburg. The province in South Africa’s northwest is known for its rich platinum reserves – not that the locals benefit much from the mining of this precious metal. Sixteen per cent of Rustenburg’s population have no income of any kind, and most households live on less than 400 euros a month. It’s a similar story to that of so many other resource-rich areas in Africa. “I wasn’t interested in setting up just any old company,” says Kgatlhanye. “I wanted to change the lives of the local people as well.” For her, Rustenburg was the perfect location for the new company’s headquarters. “Of course everything would be easier in Johannesburg,” she concedes. From transport to logistics or recruiting skilled employees, Rustenburg simply does not have the infrastructure to cover all the bases. But Kgatlhanye was adamant that she would make her products on her home turf. The company now employs a total of 15 people, most of whom are women.

“I know how important education is. Without it, I wouldn’t be here.”

Handcrafted: Kgatlhanye hopes children will wear the ingenious backpacks with pride.

“I’m so happy to have a job again.”

We are introduced to Joyce Phutiagae, a solidly built woman who hides her afro under a wig. She leans over a sheet of plastic and cuts carefully around a template. This will eventually become the back of the bag. Kgatlhanye gives her a friendly poke in the side: “If the seamstresses are twiddling their thumbs, it’s because Joyce hasn’t been working fast enough,” she says, perhaps not entirely tongue in cheek. Phutiagae smiles. She knows that her young boss has a big heart, but can also be tough. Next to the plastic cut-outs is a book in which Joyce dutifully records how many front and back sections she cuts from the plastic pieces every hour. Phutiagae lost her previous job when she became pregnant, but she’s been working at Rethaka for two years now: “I’m so happy to have a job again,” she says. She earns 6,400 rand a month (around 430 euros) – not a huge amount by any means, but when combined with her husband’s income, it’s enough to put food on the table.

The company’s CEO knows what life is like for her employees. She grew up in a Mogwase township herself and was lucky that her parents both had jobs – her father as a taxi driver, her mother as a nurse. “My parents always worked hard,” she recalls. “They were determined to give my siblings and me a good life.” The family lived in a stone house with electricity and running water, which was a major privilege by township standards. As a child, Kgatlhanye had to battle to be allowed to leave the township’s overcrowded school. “I wanted to make something of my,” she says. “And I knew that if I was going to do that, I had to get out of there.” That steely edge took her to secondary school in Rustenburg and then on to the well-regarded St. Mary’s boarding school in Pretoria. Life wasn’t always easy, though – certainly not for her parents, who had to count the pennies to make sure they had the money for her schooling – and not for Thato either. It was three months after she moved to the secondary school before she would utter a single word in class. She was ashamed of her English, which was so much less fluent than that of her peers there.

Fifteen employees wash the plastic, cut it to size and stitch the backpacks together. Rustenburg , in northwestern South Africa, is not a boomtown on the scale of Johannesburg. But Thato Kgatlhanye was determined to make her products here.

The factory yard: this is  where the valuable  raw material  the company works with  – used plastic bags – is collected.

The factory yard: this is where the valuable raw material the company works with  – used plastic bags – is collected.

Developing sustainable products

Kgatlhanye maintains a purposeful stride as she takes us on a tour of her company. She’s wearing cloth trousers, a dark-blue blouse and horn-rimmed glasses – the wardrobe of the confident, upwardly mobile black middle class. The idea of the backpacks came to her in 2011 during a seminar at Johannesburg’s renowned Vega school, which specialises in branding, marketing and design. For their semester project, the students were tasked with developing a sustainable product. Kgatlhanye’s mind quickly turned to the rubbish, of which there was an abundance lying by the roadsides of South Africa. And she remembered her old classmates at primary school who couldn’t do their homework in the evening because their families had no money even for candles. “I know how important education is. Without it, I wouldn’t be here,” she insists.

In 2016, Kgatlhanye rented out a new 100-square-metre production facility after her company outgrew its previous premises. The blinding light of Africa’s afternoon sun penetrates the dusty windows of the factory hall. There’s a spreadsheet pinned to a board on the wall where Kgatlhanye records orders. To minimise her financial risk, the company only starts production once an order for bags has been placed. “Where else would I get the money from to make them?” she asks. BMW ordered 360 backpacks for a school near its car plant in Pretoria, having been won over not only by the company founder’s idea but also her back­story: a young woman from a township who has fought to make her idea a reality – one who will hopefully be seen as a role model by other girls in South Africa. “First the logos are removed,” says Kgatlhanye, pointing to a washing tub. Two women standing at a long wooden table scrub away at the plastic bags until they are free of both dirt and branding. “We want the children to carry their backpacks with a sense of pride and a smile on their faces,” explains Kgatlhanye. “Who wants to walk around the whole time with a chemist’s logo on their backpack?” The bags are then heated and compressed into several layers.

There is neither electricity nor running water.

One of the girls walking to class every day with her solar schoolbag on her back is a bashful 10-year-old named Nomakhewezi, all delicate features and tidy, combed-back hair. She lives with her mother and brother in a corrugated-iron hut in Bojating, 60 kilometres from Rustenburg. The hut measures six square metres, a curtain dividing the small room into two halves. There is neither electricity nor running water. Nomakhewezi has to walk for over half an hour every morning to get to her primary school. Dusty clay paths wind through the small villages. There is no school bus and there are certainly no parents with their own cars to take their children to school. The journey used to be wasted time for Nomakhewezi, but now it gives her solar panel the chance to charge up. So in the evening, she no longer has to rely on flickering candlelight to do her homework.

It’s early evening, and Thato Kgatlhanye has repaired to Kentucky Fried Chicken on the main road running through Rustenburg for a bucket of deep-fried chicken pieces – “my lunch,” she says with a smile. She loves what she does, but her work takes a lot out of her at times. A journalist recently wrote an article in which he said Kgatlhanye had made it to the top. This elicits a weary smile. “It’s a journey,” she says. Her dream is that one day children across the whole of the African continent will go to school with Rethaka school bags on their backs. And that journey has only just begun.

Many children in rural areas have to walk long distances every day to get to school. But now they have a solar backpack that charges en route.