Innovation in the bag

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  • Picture of Sarah Collins
    Sarah Collins
  • Economics and Finance
  • Enterprise

Sustainable change must be locally led and supported by collaboration between aid agencies and business

One of the biggest challenges facing our world in 2022 is that nearly half of humanity still cooks over an open fire. Cardiovascular and respiratory diseases are the biggest killer in the world according to the World Health Institute, and 8 million people die annually from smoke inhalation. Half of these are children under the age of five. In Africa, each household burns approximately four trees per year, equating to 800 million trees lost per annum. It is women who bear the brunt of this massive problem, one which both feeds the climate crisis and endemic poverty across the continent.

Wonderbag, the social enterprise that I founded in 2008, arose from my deep desire to find a way to support grandmothers, mothers and girls across the African continent in tackling the poverty, inequality and health threats (all heavily impacted by traditional cooking methods) by which they are affected. Wonderbag is a simple heat-retention cooker which will continue to cook food for eight hours after being brought to the boil for just 20 minutes!

When I had that ‘a-ha’ moment that led to Wonderbag, I envisioned how heat retention cooking in homes across Africa might provide a way to support grandmothers living and cooking in rural areas to sustain their families safely, saving time and money. I had no idea what the next 14 years would ultimately be about.

For me, the most significant shift has been the realisation that business will, and must, play an essential role in a world in which everyone has the opportunity to succeed and flourish.That looks different in every culture and to every person. In many communities, flourishing means having enough to eat, access to health care, sending children to school and growing an abundance of local, accessible food. The similarity across all cultures, though, is that radical innovation in products and business models is required to take on critical global challenges.

Development aid

Before setting up Wonderbag, I had already come to understand just how broken the world of development aid is (I exclude emergency aid, which is desperately needed in climate crises and war). My view is that development aid flowing into Africa has undermined people’s freedom and dignity of choice while supporting corrupt governments of the day. I believe that foreign aid is a manipulation tool deployed as PR by powerful economies. Development aid keeps people in poverty, and very little of the money invested goes to long-term catalyst projects that are sustainable and transformational. Instead, it feeds the same old narrative of patronage and parochial systems. It is outdated and chronically corrupt.

So, what is the way forward? As someone who has been involved in work across all sectors of development, I fully believe – and have now proven – that getting the right innovations to people at the right price is what will bring more equality to this world. If people living in vulnerable and impoverished circumstances are to experience a long-term transition in their quality of life, we need innovative products and business solutions that are based on a deeper understanding of people’s context and culture.

Every single person on the planet has buying power and that is what will change the world for the better. Every person has a right to cook, to food, to dignity and to freedom. At Wonderbag, our business model works in such a way that no bag is given

away for free; there are now more than 2 million bags in homes across Africa, all of which have been subsidised to make them affordable. Since 2008, we have been collecting data on Wonderbag usage. It shows that, if Wonderbags are given away for free, they have less than a 50% chance of being used. However, when people pay, even if it’s just $1 (84p) or less, the likelihood of the bag being used jumps to 90%. As a result of the bag being used, the household can benefit, and lives are improved.

We need innovative products and business solutions that are based on a deeper understanding of people’s context and culture

In many African cultures, boys are regarded as more important, so they go to school and girls are left to do the chores. One impact of the Wonderbag on households is that time and money is saved, which helps to get more girls (who previously had to spend their days collecting firewood) into school. There is a remarkable increase in girls attending school in communities that have Wonderbags. Additionally, research conducted by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent in refugee camps in Rwanda and Uganda shows that, when a hot meal is served every day, domestic violence and gender-based violence decrease. This includes incidents of rape (according to the Clean Cooking Alliance, 82% of rapes in Africa occur while women are collecting firewood). Our research shows that these changes can occur within the very first weeks of the Wonderbag being used in a home.

Outside the home, conflict over resources is creating large-scale unrest across many African countries. If we reduce the reliance on local resources for cooking, this also means less deforestation.

Social business model

The business model that I created demonstrates that social business (and all business, really) can and should be a force for change. Fourteen years ago, Paul Polman of Unilever (whose piece appears elsewhere in this edition of the journal) shared my vision that doing good is good for business. I proved this with Unilever when, between 2010 and 2012, a Wonderbag was sold together with Unilever products at a subsidised price. By bundling products ranging from food staples such as maize meal, cooking oil, and spices to other household needs, along with Wonderbags, we increased the return on investment for Unilever by 247%.

Accountable global businesses are the most significant resource we have to further the cause of people, the planet and financial sustainability. Companies and business leaders operating in Africa and other developing locations need to place people at the heart of their business. No business is a silo; it is not possible to operate either independently of the people who purchase a company’s goods or its shareholders. This accountability ensures that services and products get to the right people at the right prices.

It is now abundantly clear that there will be no businesses or planet if we do not work towards a net zero carbon economy. This must be the guiding ambition for all corporations of the future or we will destroy ourselves. The governments of today are too volatile and unreliable; we need stability in the marketplace, and this will be created by the global force of business.

Empowering entrepreneurs

There has been much debate around the future of the capitalist model. I believe that fair and equitable capitalism is at the heart of every person in the world. In Africa, most economies are driven by entrepreneurs, predominantly women. If they have more time available, more resources and food security, their households will have a greater chance of thriving and flourishing. It is in these situations that Wonderbag is achieving remarkable success. Our business model empowers individuals to take responsibility to live an independent and abundant life. Empowerment leads to self-fulfilment. Our measure of success is not to earn $1bn, but to see systemic change in communities, and to work alongside thousands of entrepreneurs who run their own businesses. Many of these enterprises are centred around the Wonderbag, but many are not. As Forbes Africa said in 2019, Wonderbag is one of the top new wealth creators in Africa, creating wealth at the base of the pyramid, where real growth lies.

World Bank research shows that, among those populations most affected by climate change, those that emit the lowest levels of CO2 are the most affected by increasing carbon levels. As a company, we are a carbon credit originator, which means we measure the amount of carbon saved by using our product, including fuel that has been saved and which would otherwise have been burned. The amount saved is then turned into a carbon credit. For our calculations, we follow the VERRA standard of approval, which constantly audits the science behind this model. Carbon credits are then monetised and sold to companies wishing to reach carbon neutrality, and this then funds the subsidisation of Wonderbags to people who are most affected by climate change.

Most of the communities we serve are far beyond the ‘last mile’, which describes the short geographical segment of delivery of communication links, or products, to customers. Most communities that lie beyond the last mile are aid-fatigued, with projects coming and going, and no sustainable plan to support the long-term growth and independence of the people within those communities. Wonderbag brings a long-term, culturally relevant solution, and acts as a catalyst for prosperity.

Humanitarian solutions

Businesses need to find what common ground they can with outmoded and non-functional aid models. Many of the large humanitarian agencies have enormous footprints and reach into every community in Africa. At Wonderbag, I have been collaborating closely with these agencies, using their infrastructure and forming partnerships that enable a dual business model. Instead of making aid infrastructure redundant, we must breathe fire and purpose into these often empty and waiting facilities.

There is a growing movement within development aid to seek long-term sustainable ways to support communities out of poverty and to secure food resources permanently, not just for a few months. Through joint collaborations, we can slowly shift humanitarian aid towards social businesses, where everyone wins. Like the move to a green economy, it is a slow process but one that is moving in the right direction. These types of approach are gaining more traction and slowly we are seeing that success relies on stakeholders from all areas being able to cooperate.

Many people realise the time to shift is now. It is the how that brings a challenge. My ideal is to see business working to meet social priorities, collaborating with existing distribution infrastructures, and including voluntary carbon economies. Innovation with new products that have yet to go to market, as well as fast-moving consumer goods, telecoms and every business that serves people, can ensure the right innovations end up within the buying power of the people who need them the most.

Wonderbag’s journey has shown that simple frugal innovation can have long-term impact. Supporting and investing in local entrepreneurs with solutions that address the needs of their specific communities allows them to scale the solutions that they bring to the table and gives investors access to the buying power of Africa. We cannot and should not rely on innovations imported from laboratories in foreign universities that work with different mindsets over those addressing the needs at the coalface.

Sarah Collins is founder and CEO of Wonderbag, which was voted one of the ‘Top 50 Genius Companies in the World’ by Time magazine

Follow Sarah Collins on Twitter here: @SarahCollinsNB 

This article first appeared in the RSA Journal Issue 3 2022

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