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Studying with Thato Kgatlhanye’s multipurpose schoolbag

South African entrepreneur, Thato Kgatlhanye, is the co-founder and CEO of Repurpose Schoolbags, a set of bags with solar power technology that lights up at night, helping children with reading.

The rank of environmentally conscious, social entrepreneurs in Africa has grown over time to include Thato Kgatlhanye, co-founder of Rethaka, the parent company of Repurpose Schoolbags. Besides serving as a tool for carrying books and other school supplies, the bags provide lighting that students in homes with little or no power supply can use to read in the dark.

The South African entrepreneur started Rethaka with a friend in 2011 when she was just 18 years old and had just graduated high school. Though in the beginning the friends had no specific product in mind, they had a clear idea of the kind of company they wanted to build; they wanted to do business with social good. The Repurpose Schoolbags brand was eventually launched as the first product of the company.

Repurpose Schoolbags, as the name suggest, are made from discarded plastic shopping bags recycled into textile. Each schoolbag is made up 20 plastic bags. By her own account, the impact she is trying to make was teach communities the value of waste. But indeed, the impact of Repurpose Schoolbags transcends lessons in waste management and environmental sustainability. Each bag is fitted with a solar panel that charges during the day as a user goes to school and returns from school, and then at night it transforms into a solar lamp that lasts for up to 12 hours.

A child with Repurpose Schoolbags. Photo: amaphiko.redbull.com
A child with Repurpose Schoolbags. Photo: amaphiko.redbull.com

The bags also have built-in reflective material to enhance child visibility while walking to school, as many children in the target communities leave for school in the early morning. Kgatlhanye is determined to keep children in school in every way possible. The textile from which the bags are made is water-proof, which makes it easier for students to go to school even in the rain, with no need to worry over the safety of their books. In thinking up the product design, functionality was key, but not at the expense of aesthetics. Repurpose Schoolbags come in trendy designs and bright colours that might appeal to pupils.

“The whole idea of giving kids a school bag that does more with less is what inspired us,” she said. “We saw the need in our community and took plastic bags and turned it into a textile like any normal school bag but just a whole lot cooler.”

The distribution process of Repurpose Schoolbags is quite interesting. To get the bags in the hands, or on the backs, of children who need it, the company identifies disadvantaged schools with students who walk long distances to and from school, and then tries to link them with what she calls ‘Giving Partners’, that is, companies or individuals who donate money towards the purchase of the bags for the students. It then invites the sponsors to a handover ceremony at the select schools where the bags are distributed to the students.

As of 2015, Repurpose Schoolbags had a target of manufacturing 10,000 bags from its factory in Rustenburg, South Africa. Talking about the future, Kgatlhanye told The Red Bulletin: “I see Rethaka being operational in 24 African countries, looking not just at plastic waste but other waste streams too and thinking about how we can derive value – whether by producing energy or creating compost from food waste.”

Kgatlhanye. Photo: sugsa.org
Kgatlhanye. Photo: sugsa.org

Kgatlhanye was born in Mogwase, a town on the outskirt of Rustenburg. She graduated from the St Mary’s Diocesan School for Girls, Pretoria in 2010, and earned a BA in Brand Building and Management from the Vega School of Brand Leadership in 2013, after which she did an internship in New York with the American marketing expert and bestselling author, Seth Godin.

Kgatlhanye credits her mother’s love for people as a prompt for her social enterprise, adding that she grew up in an environment that emphasised empathy.

“Through our green innovations, such as the Repurpose Schoolbags, we redefine societal problems into solutions,” she stated. “We make it our business to uncover sustainable opportunities that create a far-reaching impact for low-income communities, with a particular focus on children and women.”

For her work as co-founder and CEO of Rethaka, Kgatlhanye received the 2013 South African Breweries (SAB) Foundation Social Innovation awards. In 2014, she was among 18 South African upcoming entrepreneurs invited to the Redbull Amaphiko Academy. Also in 2014, she won second place for the Anzisha Prize.

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