Can Red Bull Make Social Entrepreneurship An Extreme Sport?
Tuesday, March 28, 2017
As a college student in Johannesburg, South Africa, Thato Kgatlhanye, thought up a clever product to improve both the environment and the lives of school-age children living in the struggling, largely rural communities that surrounded her: a backpack made of recycled plastic bags with a solar-charged light attached. The bag itself would reduce waste and trash heaps in the region. At night, the light could act like a lantern allowing kids without electricity to continue studying after dark.
Shortly after graduating, the 21-year-old dreamer ran into a classic problem with that kind of blue-sky thinking: Making the product both quickly and cost-effectively was tough. Finding investors willing to help her was even tougher. So in 2014, with little more than a prototype in hand, Kgatlhanye applied to Red Bull’s inaugural Red Bull Amaphiko Academy, in the township of Soweto.
In the three years since, her product, Repurpose Schoolbags, has been tweeted about by Bill Gates, who gave it another nod in July 2016 when he delivered the Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture at the University of Pretoria. After her company, called Rethaka, scaled up its manufacturing process, companies like Unilever, the data analytics firm Epsilon, and Coca-Cola began purchasing them to donate to schools across sub-Saharan Africa. So far, the company has sold 10,000 bags and expects to double sales this year. They’re looking to partner with NGOs to expand their purchasing and distribution network, and plan to debut a more upscale model for a buy-one, give-one initiative patterned after Toms shoes in September.