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FOUNDER (S)- Thato
Kgatlhanye, Co-founder Rea Ngwane


When she was 21, Thato Kgatlhanye and her friend, Rea Ngwane, then 22, decided that they wanted to help their community. “When we looked around there was nothing we wanted to be a part of, so we decided we would build whatever it was that we wanted to be a part of,” Kgatlhanye said.

Now, she’s an award-winning social entrepreneur who has been gaining international recognition for her innovative company Repurpose Schoolbags, which she co-founded with Ngwane. Their company is addressing three key issues: sustainable energy, re-cycling, and employment, faced by their community in one simple, sustainable solution.


Repurpose Schoolbags was developed as the first product developed under Rethaka, a social, Thato co-founded alongside childhood friend-turned-business partner Rea Ngwane. The two friends, 21 and 22 years old, took advantage of the plastic waste in their region, upcycling it into 100% recycled plastic schoolbags for local disadvantaged students.

A major innovation is that the bag also doubles as a light. The backpacks feature a solar panel in the flap — which charges as the children walk to school — as well as strips of reflective material. This is an added safety feature to make the children more visible to traffic in the early hours. After a six-month pilot phase, the entrepreneurs are now distributing their 100% upcycled plastic bags to schools they’ve identified around their home town of Rustenburg. One of the first obstacles these kids face is not being able to finish their homework,” says Kgatlhanye, “If a child doesn’t have access to light then as soon as the sun goes down there is not time to do anything but sleep.” The bags are designed to help poor households from using up candles which might otherwise have lasted an entire week. And the children can focus on their homework without worrying about disrupting the family dynamic.


-Training staff effectively was a big challenge.  Another challenge the firm faced early on was the lack of infrastructure for plastic recycling. To meet this challenge, the entrepreneurs went about creating it themselves. They get plastic from landfill sites and collect it from schools that have come on board as “Purpose textile banks” and local schools run campaigns to get students to bring in plastic to be upcycled. The plastic comes to their workshop where it is processed into a textile then sewn up on industrial machines. The bags are then distributed.


Besides re-cycling plastic that would otherwise be an environmental hazard, the company is enabling children from poor families to have access to electricity when they go home after school, so they can study as much as they need at night without worrying about burning too many candles. By bringing in school children to their recycling workshop, they are also sensitizing them that plastic litter can be recycled for productive purposes. Now children know that the plastic will be used to make bags for them, they have started to pick up plastic litter in their neighborhoods.

Repurpose Bags have won the first runner-up at the 2014 Anisha Prize, a pan-African award celebrating innovative entrepreneurs aged 15-22 .The firm is planning to increase staff to meet growing demand for their products and to introduce new products. According to the founders, there is huge interest from other countries in Africa. They are also working on Conscience Bags made out of the same material that corporate can purchase for conferences. In addition, they are developing a luxury brand to develop hand bags/clutches.

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