For many kids living in rural and non-electrified parts of South Africa, the final school bell doesn’t just signal the end of another day of learning.
Instead, it also means the beginning of an arduous trek through busy and dangerous roads to get back home in time to complete their homework before sunset.
For Thato Kgatlhanye, this was all too familiar. She saw it every day in her hometown of Rustenburg, a mining community in the North West province of South Africa.
So the young entrepreneur decided to do something about it.
“This is our home. The reason we started this business is we looked at our community and we wanted to do work that matters,” explains Kgatlhanye.
That work turned into Repurpose Schoolbags — the first green initiative from Rethaka, a social startup Kgatlhanye co-founded alongside childhood friend-turned-business partner Rea Ngwane.
The millennial pair — aged just 21 and 22 years old respectively — are taking advantage of the plastic waste in their region, upcycling it into 100% recycled plastic schoolbags for local disadvantaged students.
But here’s the twist — the bag also doubles as a light.
The backpacks feature a solar panel in the flap — which charges as the children walk to school — as well as strips of reflective material, an added safety design to make the children more visible to traffic in the early hours.
A bright idea
“One of the first obstacles these kids face is not being able to finish their homework,” says Kgatlhanye, the first runner-up at the 2014 Anzhisha Prize, a pan-African award celebrating entrepreneurs aged 15-22 who’ve come up with innovative ways to solve problems in their communities. “If a child doesn’t have access to light then as soon as the sun goes down there is not time to do anything but sleep.”
Kgatlhanye explains the design is to help poor households from using up candles which might otherwise have lasted an entire week. And the children can focus on their homework without worrying about disrupting the family dynamic.
“A child simply does not have the luxury of burning the midnight oil and practicing their math sums until 12 o’clock at night because [the family] have one candle which was meant to be rationed for the whole week.”
After a six-month pilot phase earlier this year, the resourceful entrepreneurs are now distributing their 100% upcycled plastic bags to schools they’ve identified around their howetown of Rustenburg.