Carbon-credit generating slow-cooking device cuts energy consumption, saves money and is transforming women’s lives in South Africa.
The Wonderbag is an energy-efficient approach to cooking. Its clever insulating properties allow food brought to the boil to finish cooking while in the bag, without the use of additional energy. So, families can cook appetising hot meals, while saving energy and money. It also means less time tending to cooking food – time that can be better spent looking after children, earning an income or doing essential chores.
“Our primary goal is to significantly alleviate poverty in Africa on a large scale,” says Sarah Collins, founder and CEO of Natural Balance, the South African company behind this innovative idea. “But we’re not stopping there. We’d like to see a Wonderbag in every house around the world. We have ambitious ethical and environmental goals to achieve – we want to positively impact people’s lives, the planet’s ecology and everybody’s perception on a global scale.”
Supplying a simple slow-cooking device that will “change behaviour in a way that will change the world” may seem improbable to some. Sarah Collins, however, is fully committed to achieving her goal. “We’re not about Wonderbags being sold, we’re about Wonderbags being used to help ease the social, economic and environment impacts on disadvantaged communities.”
As of April this year, 600,000 Wonder-bags have been distributed throughout South Africa, set to improve the lives of over 2.5 million people. With key partnerships in place, including Unilever and Microsoft, Collins hopes to see that figure rise to at least five million in the next few years.
In 2008 Collins, who has a background in community-based eco-tourism and environmental conservation, was inspired to develop a product that would combat poverty in Africa on a large scale. Growing up on the east coast of South Africa, she knew the need was great, the opportunities were vast and the time was now.
“It’s taken years of passion, heart, energy, trial and error and stick-to-it-ness to get the brand where it is today – over 600,000 bags distributed in South Africa, first round of carbon credits registered and issued, production started in Rwanda and Turkey, pilots poised to launch in Kenya, Nigeria and Somaliland, and … bags sold in the UK, with a buy-one-give-one model to support getting Wonderbags into humanitarian relief efforts,” says Collins.
Based in Durban, South Africa, the Wonderbag team has since expanded to include like-minded people to construct a business model that can scale up for replication across Africa, Asia, India, South America, Europe and USA.
A Wonderbag being used in a kitchen in Soweto, South Africa. Photo: Mark Lanning
More than a nice stew …
Collins says the Wonderbag is making the most “incredible shifts” in the economic status of women who have embraced it. “We see phenomenal change in both developing and developed countries. It’s not just a poverty alleviation project (it can save the average South African family up half of their annual income ordinarily spent on fuel), nor is it just a development exercise (our factories have created over 2,000 jobs in South Africa and Rwanda), nor indeed is it just a carbon trading model (each unit has the capacity to save half a ton of carbon a year, which is harvested and sold on the carbon markets). Brought to scale, the Wonderbag has the power to do much more than that; it can be the catalyst for a lot more than a nice stew and CSR initiatives. Our partners understand this, and that’s why the likes
of Unilever, Microsoft and JP Morgan have got behind the cause of getting 100 million into homes by 2015.”
Collins points out that the Wonderbag is a commercially run business, not a charity. Bags are not given out for free. Each bag retails at around GBP30, but they are offered at a subsidized price to those unable to pay that amount, thanks in part to the deal with Unilever and to the carbon credits earned from the reduction in greenhouse gases resulting from use of the bag.
One of only a few businesses accredited with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, it is going through the process of being validated for the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) as well as the Voluntary Gold Standard which allow companies to purchase carbon credits generated by the bags to offset their own emissions.
“This carbon funding allows Natural Balance to sell the bags at cost price,” explains Collins, adding, “This means we can bring Wonderbags in at the lowest possible costs … to people who need them.”
Leveraging carbon finance
“The Wonderbag is such a brilliant idea as it benefits both the consumer and the African families each sale will help,” says Grant Little, business development manager, DNV Accredited Climate Change Services South Europe, Africa and Middle East. “I use the Wonderbag myself and I’m impressed. It’s a revolutionary new way of cooking which is making a positive impact on people’s lives.
“In South Africa, the Wonderbag project falls into a VCS grouped project, and in Rwanda DNV is validating Wonderbag’s Programme of Activity (PoA) format of carbon emission reduction projects,” explains Grant. “We’ve recently seen the registration of a number of PoAs across Africa. The PoA mechanism was designed in order to allow participants to combine CDM funding with government subsidies, in order to develop national initiatives that governments in developing countries could struggle to sustain over time in the absence of the mechanism. Other countries are also embracing the new mechanism in order to leverage carbon finance for projects that may otherwise not have been implemented.”
He continues, “The premise behind the Wonderbag heat retention cooker is that, of all the energy transferred to food during conventional cooking, most of it is lost to the atmosphere through inefficient insulation and exposure to air through convection and radiation. Food that has been sufficiently heated on a stove can be transferred into a Wonderbag, where the heat is retained and allowed to continue cooking the food without the application of more energy from a stove. This allows the heat source of the stove (e.g. wood, fossil fuels, gas or electricity) to be turned off – thereby saving any additional emissions to the atmosphere.”
One of the issues that encouraged Sarah Collins to begin the Wonderbag business is that in Africa, girls are sent to get firewood and 68 percent of rapes occur when they are collecting wood – so there are multiple benefits.
Unlocking time, money and workforce
“Ultimately the Wonderbag is about efficiency in cooking, which is a fundamental activity in a family. It ignites the connection between families in developing and developed communities: a basic need to provide nutritious meals and the unlocking of time, money and workforce,” says Collins.
Natural Balance ventured what happens when not just one family, but an entire community, gets a Wonderbag; using statistics compiled and audited by the UN, which projected Wonderbags on developing communities across the world. Firewood or charcoal can last 5–7 longer, allowing for reforestation. Water lasts longer, as there is no evaporation from the Wonderbag. Time is given back to women, for a job or caring for the family. Girls are back in school, rarely needing to collect firewood, and not straying too far from home.
“We realised that the impact of the Wonderbag has a multiplier effect: money for charcoal lasts the whole month, families have more disposable income, the girls are back at school, the school needs more classrooms, builders are employed to expand the school, more teachers are employed, and more school uniforms and books are sold,” says Sarah Collins. She emphasizes that in just one year, the impact of having 100 million Wonderbags in use across the world would save 170 million trees and 15.6
billion litres of water, as well as create some 100,000 new jobs and USD3.6
billion in disposable income.
Natural Balance was one of the few social enterprises able to attend this year’s World Economic Forum, where it announced the launch of its initiative to distribute 100 million Wonderbags with the support of its partners. His Excellency Nasser Sami Judeh, the Jordanian Minister of Foreign Affairs, along with the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Unilever CEO Paul Polman, acknowledged the importance of collaboration between world leaders, NGOs and corporate organisations to instigate social change. And the 100 million bag initiative was recognized as a viable model to deliver social empowerment and mobility to some of the world’s poorest communities.
Call for real action
“We have the potential to save and improve the quality of millions of lives by providing a simple cooking device, yet we are still struggling to raise the corporate investments we need to help us change the world,” says Sarah Collins.
She concludes, “We have business models that work, pilot projects and Wonderbags in homes. Captains of industry make commitments, governments and UN agencies sign documents, speeches are made: but we need real action … we need more private- public partnerships, and other corporate partners to join us to make a lasting impact.”