Empowering women and fighting climate change with Sarah Collins | founder of Wonderbag

Empowering women and fighting climate change with Sarah Collins | founder of Wonderbag

Wonderbag was founded in 2008 by activist-entrepreneur Sarah Collins. Schalk Kearney, CEO and co-founder of +earth interviewed Sarah for episode 4 of our founder feature interview series, Be Different.

Watch the full video interview.

Home is where the hearth is. 

We’ve all heard the saying. The hearth is where friends and families gather, where fire comforts us and prepares our food, and where people are fed and nourished. It is the centrepiece of the home, and where 89% of women in Africa and other underdeveloped nations spend their time, according to Sarah Collins – entrepreneur and founder of the Wonderbag.

Sadly, the hearth of the home often proves to be harmful… deadly, even. Every single day, more than 3 billion people cook over an open fire using solid fuels such as wood, coal, agricultural residue, charcoal, or manure. The carbon monoxide and pollution this produces is considerable.

The more our emissions mix with the planet’s atmosphere, the more havoc is wreaked on our environment. It’s not only the planet that is directly affected by humanity’s impact on climate change. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the incomplete combustion of these fuels due to inefficient cooking practices has turned preparing food into a life-threatening risk.

Toxic indoor household air pollution caused by tiny, microscopic health-damaging particles is the fourth biggest health risk in the developing world. Household air pollution kills millions each year, and most fatalities are women and children. The risks of indoor open fire cooking range from pneumonia, asthma, and heart disease, to vision impairment, deadly burns and injuries.

Unfortunately, however, those from low- and middle income countries adopting traditional methods of cooking, haven’t really had a choice to implement alternative methods that minimise these harmful, potentially lethal impacts. Sustainable alternatives are often costly, tricky to install, and not able to reach the rural areas where they are needed most.

Until this came along… The Wonderbag is a simple yet revolutionary alternative that is affordable, accessible, and rapidly changing lives using the oldest technology in the world – heat retention cooking. After bringing a pot of food to the boil, the pot can be removed from the heat source, and placed inside a Wonderbag, where it will continue cooking for up to 12 hours. 

The benefits of this seemingly simple step in the cooking process are huge. Not only does the Wonderbag reduce cooking time, it reduces the fuel needed to cook by 70%! In a single year, one Wonderbag can mitigate up to one ton of carbon emissions, cut indoor air pollution by 60%, spare 1 000 litres of cooking water, and save five large trees from deforestation.

They are also catalysts for social change, diverting 1 300 hours away from unpaid labour, improving the health of women and children, saving money spent on fuel and charcoal, creating jobs, inspiring entrepreneurs, and even reducing the amount of gender-based violence that takes place in communities where women and children are sent out to collect firewood.

True to their namesake, the Wonderbag is truly working wonders.

Where it all began…

Having worked in the entrepreneurial space of empowerment and conservation in communities within Sub-Saharan Africa since the age of 22, Sarah Collins is no stranger to the needs of those living in rural Africa. In fact, she has spent her life trying to find ways to economically enable freedom and dignity to women, particularly those running homes in Africa.

“I had been looking at what the challenges are, and the biggest challenge, even with COVID, even with climate change, is that half of humanity still eats off open fires,” says Collins. “I got to the point where I lost all fear because I had come to the point where either I was going to solve one of the biggest problems in the world, or I was going to go and write and ride my horses and grow vegetables and make jam.”

The light bulb moment happened when, ironically, the lights went out… It was 2008, and South Africa was experiencing rolling blackouts across the country. Collins – who was no stranger to living without power having come from a tent in the Okavango for 10 years, where she worked closely with local communities – suddenly realised the huge impact this was having on the lives of people around her. No power was forcing more and more people to cook on open fires, with devastating (and often unseen) consequences. She recalled a cooking method of her grandmother’s, where food was taken off the arger, or cast iron stove, and put into a contraption called a Wonderbox to continue cooking. Just then, armed with ingredients for a chicken curry, a gas hob, sofa, and some cushions, Collins got to work. After bringing the pot to the boil, she placed it into the sofa, covered it in cushions, and left it overnight. The next morning, she woke up to a delicious chicken and vegetable curry. “It was that instant that I tasted that meal, that I knew my life would never be the same again. And that is when it all started,” she says.

As soon as the prototypes were made, and the product was in the homes of 500 women, the economic impact was undeniable. “What I saw in those first three months was children going back into school,” she recalls. “I saw the economic shift in homes. Also, the biggest thing for me was seeing women become entrepreneurs.”

Savings on electricity, firewood, and fuel were immediate, and suddenly women were able to put money into their own small businesses. “I believe the true entrepreneurs are women,” says Collins. “They are the economic stronghold of a community. I’ve seen it in India, I’ve seen it in Asia, I’ve seen it everywhere. Not just Africa.”

Manufactured within the communities, the Wonderbag’s economic impact is far-reaching, empowering women with choice, independence and human rights. It is also creating massive ripple effects of change within overall human health, and the health and well-being of the planet. With verifiable carbon offset projects on the go, social impact programmes that are building resilient communities, and trusted partners who ensure lives are being impacted, Wonderbag is having a quantifiable impact on people and the planet and is firmly embedded in all of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

With a vision to grow the company and expand into even more regions, Collins aims to have hundreds of millions of Wonderbags impacting communities across the globe, with a sustainable supply chain that empowers all involved in the movement towards a brighter future.

“I believe it’s a human right to cook. I believe it’s a human right to eat, and I think it’s a human right to purchase what you want. And as business leaders and as big FMCGs around the world, I think our challenge is to get the right things to the right people at the right price,” says Collins. “And I believe that globally, we can do that. That is something I would really like to see emerging as we find our way into a new dawn.”

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