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African invention wins coveted Food Planet prize

  • marimac 

On 15 November, the two winners of the Food Planet award from the ten selected finalists from all over the world were announced.

KZN-based Sarah Collins, Founder and CEO of Wonderbag, the brain behind a solution to address many humanitarian and environmental issues through the way people cook. Image credit: Wonderbag
KZN-based Sarah Collins, Founder and CEO of Wonderbag, the brain behind a solution to address many humanitarian and environmental issues through the way people cook. Image credit: Wonderbag

The two change-making initiatives that were deemed most deserving to receive USD2-million to scale their impact were Coldhubs from Nigeria and the Global Mangrove Alliance from the US. Among the ten hopeful finalists was another African based food and environmental solution – South Africa’s own Wonderbag.

The Curt Bergfors Food Planet Prize is the largest monetary award in the global food arena and in 2022 it’s now also the world’s biggest environmental award that is all about food. “To have been recognised as one of ten of the world’s most innovative solutions that will help shift the planet to sustainable food systems within a ten-year time frame is such an achievement in its own right and we are exceptionally proud to have made it this far.

Although I’m disappointed not to have won the USD2-million to help rapidly scale up our Wonderbag operation, I am thrilled to see a fellow African business take the top honours and represent our continent as being best in the world!”, says Wonderbag’s Founder and CEO, Sarah Collins.

Wonderbag was shortlisted a month earlier by Food Planet as the only South African based company and one of only two African entities worldwide that offered the world a game-changing initiative to address the climate crisis through food solutions. Wonderbag was founded in 2008 by Sarah Collins who says that this simple but revolutionary invention was driven by a yearning for equality and social justice that has since developed into an entrepreneurial solution to many of the world’s humanitarian and environmental problems by changing the way people cook.

“Heat retention cooking was something that needed to be mainstreamed… moved into the twenty-first century,” says Collins. “It’s so obvious. But everybody wants a button to press, something fancy. Whereas the simplest solution is often the best one.”

The Wonderbag at its core is not a new idea. It’s probable that for as long as people have been cooking, there has been some version of the heat retention cooking concept. In fact, cooking “pits” – where food can be buried over smouldering rocks or coals to slowly roast – are often one of the first signs archeologists look for in determining if an area was inhabited by humans. Today, earth ovens remain common in many parts of the world, from the pit barbecues of the American South to the Imus used to cook pig and other traditional luau foods in Hawaii.

The catalyst for Collins to develop the Wonderbag version was the rolling power outages that gripped South Africa in the winter of 2008. Cooking, it seemed to her, needed to be less reliant on electricity. But the idea also emerged in part from her time working with rural communities living near national parks in southern Africa. For people living on the margins, she knew even small gains – like having to spend a few rands less on gas for cooking, or fewer hours searching for wood to cook with, could make an important difference to their quality of life.

“I had started to see how food and fuel were at the root of so many problems. Three billion people still cook on an open fire and seven million people die from indoor-air pollution diseases every year. One Wonderbag can reduce household air pollution by 90% and reduces the amount of firewood collected by up to 80%,” says Collins. This was particularly true for women, to whom the burden of preparing food usually fell. They were the ones exposed to violence and theft when they went to collect wood. They were the ones who couldn’t go to school or work outside the house when there was cooking to be tended to. They were the ones inhaling fumes from gas and smoke from charcoal as they bent over pots of food. If a better way of cooking could move the needle even a little on those problems, she thought, it was worth throwing herself behind.

Growing up in South Africa, Sarah’s roots are intertwined with community empowerment projects and initiatives – particularly those that facilitate change in gender equality and environmental sustainability. Wonderbags often have African-inspired prints on the fabric and the bags contain repurposed chipped foam. Drawing on heat retention technology, after bringing a pot of food to the boil and placing it into a Wonderbag with the ‘lid’ draw-stringed close, the food will continue to cook for up to eight hours.

According to Collins, through the use of residual heat alone, Wonderbag users will reduce their fuel and electricity usage by up to 70% and decrease indoor air pollution by 60%. Further to this, the company claims that annually, each unit also diverts 1 000 hours of unpaid labour (for example, for cooking and gathering firewood and water), saves five large trees from deforestation (by using less wood fuel for fires), and saves up to a ton of carbon emissions per year, while also potentially boosting household incomes by USD2 or R17 per day.

So, with these huge environmental impacts and savings – a natural progression for the Wonderbag business model, which has come full circle since 2012 when the carbon credit market crashed, was in 2019 when South African lawmakers signed the carbon tax act. This act allowed companies to buy carbon credits to offset some of their taxable emissions. Overnight, the carbon market in the country rebounded. By October 2020, demand was three times supply.

However, in order to get Wonderbags into the hands of communities who need them the most, it meant subsidising the bags to be sold below market rates. Collins devised a system for estimating the Wonderbag’s carbon savings and then registered the Wonderbag as a recognised and audited carbon credits project. “My dream has been to create a business that interlinks economic, social and environmental positive impact. Wonderbag is delivering just that – equality across the circular models of the future,” explains Sarah about what drives her to make the Wonderbag product and business a resounding success.

It’s through this linkage of carbon credits that companies who were considered big carbon emitters as well as environmentally responsible businesses interested in offsetting their carbon footprint, would support the subsidisation of Wonderbags that could ultimately have wider implications for food security globally. “If people can’t cook, they can’t eat,” says Collins. “The power is in the hands of these corporations and their consumers.”

Today, the company sells between 200 000 and 250 000 tons of carbon annually. And many of their customers – ranging from the oil company Sasol to the UK’s fast food chain Nando’s have been knocking at Wonderbag’s door. “These companies basically told us they will take as many carbon credits as we are capable of giving them,” Collins said.

Some experts question the utility of these kinds of offsets, given the scale on which major polluters are contributing to planetary warming. But for companies like Wonderbag, they have been a lifeline. Suddenly, its problem isn’t about not having enough funding. It’s finding ways to expand quickly enough to meet the new demand.

A worthy top ten finalist of the Food Planet Prize for 2022, the Wonderbag has so far been sold and distributed internationally, including South Africa, Kenya, Rwanda, Syrian refugee camps in Jordan, the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, in continental Europe, Reunion Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.

“Wonderbag has the potential to be one of the largest scalable solutions to Carbon Offsets across the developing world, while simultaneously building resilient energised communities that support people, predominantly women and children, who are the most affected by the Climate Crisis. We are so proud of what we have achieved so far, and we are determined to keep making a difference to the planet and the people who live on it,” adds Collins.

In 2019, Wonderbag was voted as one of the ‘Top 50 Genius Companies in The World’ by Time Magazine along with many other local and global accolades leading up to this game-changing global nomination by the Food Planet Prize in 2022. The top ten finalists for 2022 were Apeel from the USA (winner), BioLumic from New Zealand, Catalyst Agri-Innovations Society from Canada, ColdHubs from Nigeria (winner), Consupedia from Sweden, Easy Mining from Sweden, the Global Mangrove Alliance from the USA, ReFED from the USA, Yakum from Ecuador and Wonderbag from South Africa.