Business model with a heart | Fin24

Business model with a heart

Nov 27 2018 10:38
Glenneis Kriel

A South African cooking innovation, called Wonderbag, recently featured alongside innovation titans, such as Apple, SpaceX, Amazon and Oculus, in Time Magazine’s Genius Companies issue. 

finweek spoke to Wonderbag’s founder, Sarah Collins, about the business. 

What did you do before you started Wonderbag?

I worked in the realm of community-based tourism. 

We launched a horseback riding safari business, and a mobile and tented camp, known as Stanley’s Camp, in the Okavango Delta. 

Among other things, I have run for political office, set up my own NGO and helped local communities create thriving businesses. 

When did you start Wonderbag and why? 

The Wonderbag product was born ten years ago, out of a practical desire to continue cooking during a bout of Eskom load shedding, and to find an alternative to empower women in Africa who spend most of their time and money cooking. 

Inspiration for the solution was drawn from my grandmother, who used a box and two cushions to cook food. 

My intuition has always been that the Wonderbag was going to be a global game-changer, as was the Wonder Box in the 1970s. 

What is a Wonderbag?

It is a heat-retention cooker, allowing food that has been brought to the boil by conventional methods to continue cooking for up to 12 hours without using any additional energy. 

Using a Wonderbag saves time, money, fuel, and reduces air pollution. 

It mitigates the risk of fire or danger of children burning themselves while cooking. 

Where did you get start-up funding?

I mortgaged my house and took on a financial partner, which worked for a few years, but our intentions were not aligned and hence we split. 

My advice to prospective entrepreneurs, when it comes to start-up funding, is to try not to borrow money. 

If you do, use a formal and very well-thought-out strategy. 

To what do you ascribe the success of the company?

The world has embraced the Wonderbag because of its environmental attributes and particularly its social contributions. 

For every bag sold, a contribution is made to the Wonderbag Foundation to help put more bags into the hands of those who live in poverty. 

The story of the Wonderbag has caught the imagination of the world at a time when people want to be part of a global solution. 

Is Wonderbag a commercial business? 

Yes, one based on a buy one, donate one model. 

For every retail Wonderbag bought, a donation is made to the Wonderbag Foundation to subsidise Wonderbags and host WonderFeasts in vulnerable communities around the world.

Our business model has been adapted many times. 

We started it based on carbon financing, whereby the saving on each bag reduces a tonne of carbon, allowing other businesses to offset their carbon and put the money back into development. 

Thereafter we made the move into retail.

We’ve had to bridge many cultures and adopt different “go-to-market” strategies, as ours is an ever-evolving model and always will be.

Partnerships are an essential part of our growth strategy and we believe in collaboration, not isolation. 

Our initial, and still one of our biggest, campaigns was in partnership with Unilever and Rajah spices in 2011, which helped introduce the Wonderbag to a huge number of SA consumers.

How has the company grown since you started it? 

Since we started ten years ago, with just a handful of believers, we have now distributed over 1m bags worldwide and we have just started to enjoy the benefits of the traction due to communication. 

We don’t believe in counting the number of staff we have in our employ as a means of measuring our company’s growth. 

Instead, we measure the number of women’s lives that have changed as a direct result of the Wonderbag. 

We currently have over 20 000 people selling and promoting the Wonderbag, but there are millions of women and communities whose lives have improved thanks to this simple but ingenious product.

What were the biggest challenges when you started out?

Getting people to take me and this bag seriously! 

It has and still is about honing in on people who have the same mission and integrity as yourself, and in my case people who believed the world will change via global corporations. 

People and the problems they can present in a business can be your worst nightmare, but they can also be your biggest asset – choose your people wisely.

What are currently your biggest challenges?

To scale the business with integrity, to prioritise and to look at who and what and where we want to be in the next ten years. 

There never seems to be enough time in a day. How do you market the Wonderbag?

Word of mouth is our strongest marketing tool, but we also use PR, digital marketing and social media to drive awareness. 

WonderFeasts have proved especially effective in communities where we can demonstrate to large crowds the benefits of the bag and how to use it. 

At WonderFeast events communities come together to learn about life-saving opportunities. 

We cook a wholesome meal and demonstrate how the Wonderbag works. 

After the demonstration, everyone gets to share a meal. 

We bring together leaders in the community to discuss challenges and opportunities within the community. 

Our goal is that the community leaves feeling empowered and closer to one another. 

We launch WonderFeasts in mainly vulnerable communities, but of late more to all types of people around the world. 

Where are your primary markets? 

There’s no specific market thanks to campaigns done in partnership with various corporates and through access to the product online. 

The Wonderbag goes everywhere – from the kitchens of suburbia in first-world countries to the kitchens of families in rural Africa. 

What has been the biggest surprise of this business journey?

How tough it is to survive as an entrepreneur and how people tend to attack rather than support. 

Human nature has shocked the hell out of me.  

Were there times when you felt like quitting?

Many, many, many times … and I still have my moments! But I am driven by a deep sense that every human needs to contribute and leave this world a better place. 

My friends and support system have been crucial and kept me alive.

What are your plans with the Wonderbag for the next five to ten years?

In 2016, I launched the Coalition of Action (COA) to unite communities and leaders in SA and across the globe in support of the 2030 Sustainable Goals. 

Using the Wonderbag as a catalyst, the COA pools major resources from investors, philanthropists, big business and influential leaders with the objective of empowering communities across the globe, end poverty, and improve the lives of rural women. 

I plan to continue putting energy and resources behind this to make a real impact on society and business by 2030.

My total belief is that the key to the stark divides and lack of basic human rights such as access to healthcare, food, water and education, as well as safety, lies in partnerships between large global corporations across the board in health, oil, FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods), governments, foundations, local communities and individuals. 

I am working on models like COA that incorporate all these partners and would like to achieve sizeable scale and impact on our own Wonderbag business model as well as other aligned business models we are associated with in the next ten years. 

What advice do you have for others who would like to start their own business?

Trust your gut, believe in yourself and don’t let anyone try and persuade you otherwise. 

Put into place small realistic targets, as achieving these targets will help you gain the courage to achieve your bigger goals.

Get a business and personal mentor who understands you and your business, believes in you and gives objective advice while also being empathetic. 

Also, spend less money than you want to. More money and more people do not mean quicker and easier success, so rather grow your business organically and take small steps. 

Besides this, you need to know and get your markets right before taking on debt or partners, as these can make or break you. 

This article originally appeared in the 22 November edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here or subscribe to our newsletter here.