How patriarchy and apartheid practices shaped a white woman into a feisty entrepreneur

Published On: 27 January 2022|

She was raised on a farm in rural KwaZulu-Natal by strong, brave, and tenacious women who gathered firewood. Watching her own mother being downtrodden by her father in a society that belittled women and other social groups, she decided that, if she was to influence change for a fairer world, that change must start with her.

Today, she runs a thriving business whose product is being used in two million households across sub-Saharan Africa and has been successfully marketed to other parts of the world.

On Day Two of the inaugural Economic Activation Workshop of The Student Women Economic Empowerment Programme (SWEEP), this ambitious woman addressed a 60-strong audience of student women drawn from South Africa’s public universities on Economic Independence and Dignity through Entrepreneurial Activity. This was at a workshop seeking to empower women by providing them a safety net of transferable business and practical skills and opportunities, backed by a foundation of academic stewardship.

Launched in October 2021, SWEEP is an initiative of the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme inspired by widespread concern over the under-representation of women in entrepreneurship.

Ms Sarah Collins (above) is the Founder and CEO of Wonderbag, a company that manufactures the Wonderbag, described as “an award winning, revolutionary, non-electric, heat-retention cooker that allows food that has been brought to the boil using conventional methods, to continue to cook for up to eight hours without using additional energy sources.”

Collins believes that business will have a significant impact if it helps solve society’s biggest challenges.

In sharing her entrepreneurial story, Ms Collins admitted that she would contradict much of what previous speakers at the SWEEP workshop had sold as sacrosanct in business.  She said developing an enterprise is not always a linear process.

“When I began, I did not have a business plan and I had no funding. I just knew that I wanted to find a way to stop children with streaming eyes and grandmothers having to carry wood for long distances from being exposed to unhealthy smoke from wood fires. I also saw denuded forests with trees cut down as fuel for cooking fires.”

This is a woman who, having been raised on a farm, has always been socially conscious. She knew that she wanted to do something to right some of the injustices of patriarchy and, alongside it, the apartheid system.

And so, she set out to make changes that made a difference. She started an NGO called Future Farmers which offered on-the-ground training and internships in farming.  Many of the young people who passed through the NGO have become farmers today, she said. She also began selling earthworm farms to farmers to use in crop cultivation.  “Future Farmers was enabling us to own our own futures. People started to label me ‘difficult.’ I was challenging notions that, as a girl, I could not do this, or that.”

How the Wonderbag came about

It was when she was running a project called Gogo Getters – supporting grandmothers looking after children, having to feed them every day with food cooked on a wood fire – that the idea for the Wonderbag struck her.

“My grandmother used to cook food in a box, with a pot inside. So, in April 2008, at the height of loadshedding, the memory of this box came back to me at night. I realised that it was a form of heat retention cooking. I wondered why such a simple technology was not being used widely to solve the problem at hand. I knew that night, that I would change the world by transforming the cooking process forever.”

That night, she made a curry, cooked it on the stove for 20 minutes, then removed that pot from the stove and wrapped it in cushions. “The next morning the meat was falling off the bone. I knew then that we would transform the way people cook.”

She made Wonderboxes (the original model that has been modified into today’s Wonderbag) and gave them to 500 Gogos. “I remember this one grandmother on the outskirts of Orange Farm, whose children did not go to school, because they spent days looking for firewood to cook goats’ heads that their grandmother sold at the taxi rank. Within three months of receiving Wonderboxes, she had employed four other people. I realised I had created an entrepreneur, not a customer.”

Ms Collins said she did not want to be and NGO where stuff was handed out to people with no effect [she still believes that Aid is crippling the continent]. “My goal was to get the Wonderbag (the design was done after a serendipitous meeting with a dressmaker I met on a plane) to everyone at a price that they could afford. Fourteen years later, that is what we are doing.”

And the rest is history.

The Wonderbag could emancipate women and save forests

At the SWEEP Economic Activation Workshop, she went on to share tangible lessons with the aspiring entrepreneurs, on how to identify a business niche.

Identify a problem to solve

She said entrepreneurship is real because opportunities are there. “They derive from the challenges in your community.” She cited an example of Netflorist, who started their flowers business when they identified a gap in the market, of the absence of a flower delivery service on Valentine’s Day.

Think on your feet

Ms Collins said entrepreneurs must think on their feet and be prepared to make quick changes when necessary. When she received an order for 100,000 Wonderbags in six weeks from Unilever, she and her team sprang into action. “We got 2 000 people working on the bags and filled our order on time.”

During question time, Linda Lindani, the Programme Director, asked what Ms Collins had learnt from running a business.

Her response: “Know that you will fall. If you know you are doing the right thing – and you know your Why (purpose) then you will keep going. I have fallen a lot of times but kept rising because the fire keeps burning.”

One of the workshop participants, Thusothendo Malovhele, asked what things she would change in her business, if she were to prevent some of the challenges she encountered along the way.

Her response: I would find an accountant who knew how things work.

Kimberly Mkhushulwa asked: If one needs funding, where would you suggest they start looking first?

Her response: Keep a history of your spending to get an idea of what it costs to run your business. I did not think of keeping slips and being accountable. Start small and do not be over ambitious. Grow slowly. I cannot pin-point specifics but there are a lot of start-up initiatives that SWEEP will pick up on.

Linda Lindani also asked what advice she would give to young women wanting to start a social business.

Her response: Social enterprises are the future. Believe in yourself and keep doing the right thing.  But listen to others and take opportunities. I run my entire business with entrepreneurs who are problem-solvers and are self-starters. I do not work with people who wait for instructions. That you’ve joined SWEEP is already a good start.

Collins was a firm social activist at 24

She says she grew up enjoying the freedom of rural living where she was raised by strong, brave, and tenacious women who gathered firewood. But despite her happy and joyous childhood, “my mother was downtrodden.  In the evenings, she dressed up for my father but was relegated to the kitchen with us, while my dad sat with the boys around the dining table. Women were not valued. My journey started there.

“My friends were not allowed to come to the beach with me. They were poor and lacked shoes. I started growing carrots, sold them, and made little money to share with my friends so they could buy shoes. I decided that If I was to live in a fairer world, it must start with me. I charged peers who wanted to ride my horse and used the money to help my friends.

“By the age of 24, I was a firm activist – questioning why my brothers could work in the family business and me not; why men hoarded boardroom tables to the exclusion of women. I did not study to become an entrepreneur; spreadsheets and matters of raising capital were foreign to me.”

She admits that her business journey has been tough and continues to be work in progress. “I thought I would become a billionaire within a year. but I am not there yet.  Nonetheless, the spirit of the African Woman, of Ubuntu, keeps me going.”

Co-written by Charmain Naidoo, a contract writer for Universities SA (USAf), and ‘Mateboho Green, Manager: Corporate Communication at USAf.