IT ALL STARTED WHEN...
Sarah Collins couldn't sleep. It was 2008, and rolling blackouts had darkened the city of Johannesburg. There were severe, ongoing energy shortages throughout South Africa, and everyone was affected. Cities and towns, hospitals and schools—all had power only once every several days, and then only for a few hours. It was during one of these blackouts that Sarah leapt out of bed at two in the morning and woke up her roommate. "I've got it!" she said. "I know how I'm going to change the world."
Sarah had devoted her entire life to searching for ways to empower people in rural Africa, especially women. She worked in AIDS orphans clinics. She did environmental conservation work. She started community-based businesses to help rural women generate an income. She even created a political party and ran for government.
But the night of the blackout, Sarah flashed back to her childhood. Growing up on a farm in a remote part of the country, she had watched her grandmother bundle blankets and cushions around a hot pot of stew to keep it cooking and conserve her limited fuel. "Why wouldn't that work," she thought. Then she remembered watching the San people bury food in the ground while they were cooking. "I thought to myself, 'This is the oldest technology in the world.'"
The next day, Sarah created the prototype for her heat-retention cooker, the Wonderbag. After food is brought to a boil, the pot is placed in the heavily-lined bag where it slow-cooks for up to 12 hours. "Finding firewood for cooking takes a huge amount of rural women's time," explains Sarah, "and gathering it is very dangerous. The wood fires used to cook then cause indoor pollution, a leading cause of death worldwide in children under five. Having the Wonderbag would empower the women to feed their families, generate an income, and save them time."
"Right away I knew it would work," says Sarah, "I just knew it. I called my brother and said, 'I've found it! I've found my life, I've found my destiny, I found the way I can help make a difference.'
And I described the idea, and he joked, 'Sarah, for years the family has been looking for an excuse to have you institutionalized, and I think I just found it.'"
Sarah brought her first bag to a grandmother she knew who cared for nine orphans. The woman earned a meager living selling food that she cooked all day over a wood fire, but still struggled to meet her family's basic needs. The tarpaulin where they lived was always full of smoke. The kids weren't in school, because they had to spend their days gathering firewood. "I said to her, 'I'll live with you while we see whether this works.' But she got the idea right away," says Sarah. "Their lives were completely changed. Within three months, the children only needed to gather firewood once a week, and they were all in school. They had money for shoes. It was a catalyst out of poverty for them."
Sarah has traveled across countries and continents, meeting leaders, dignitaries, and captains of industry to share the Wonderbag story. Nine years later, she has sold, donated, and subsidized more than 1,000,000 Wonderbags throughout the world, but her journey has just begun...