Innovation That Matters

Where Are They Now?: Repurpose school bags

Where Are They Now

We caught up with Rethaka, the South African startup making school bags that come with solar panel "homework lanterns."

With so much focus on switching to renewable energy resources, it can be easy to forget that there are still parts of the world that don’t have any adequate electricity infrastructure at all. At night, entire communities plunge into darkenss unless they fire up dangerous, polluting kerosene lanterns. That’s why we paid particularly close attention to a startup called Rethaka, which created school bags for children that are made of recycled material, and come with solar panels that charge during the day and can be used as homework lanterns at night.

Not only was the idea intelligently meeting multiple needs, it provided a solution that was convenient, and rather adorable — the idea of “homework lanterns” no doubt tugged on a few heartstrings and kept those funding rolling in. The project was supportive of education for young ones, and at the same time developed a product that was eco-friendly and safe to use. It also integrated into children’s daily lives with its simple functionality — the panels would charge up on the backs of the wearer during their walk to school.

Since we wrote about Rethaka in November 2014, they have expanded their distribution from South Africa to multiple countries, including Brazil, the US, and the UK. They have manufactured and distributed 4290 bags, increased their team from 8 to 20 (15 of them are women), and collected 171,600 plastic bags as material for the school bags.


Founder Thato Kgatlhanye says our feature was one of the reasons that more doors opened for Repurpose, introducing them to people who advised and mentored on how to make the business better. “I think that was important in our growth,” she says.

They have also won many awards — including first place at the 2014 SA Innovation Summit and a finalist for Cartier Women’s Initiative in Sub-Saharan Africa — and garnered recognition from Bill Gates among others.

“There have been successes but these have also been balanced out by failures, which is important,” Thato says. “This has validated our values as a company in that we do not strive for right answers, but rather interesting answers that touch humanity in a way that no other company has before.”

Thato admits that her team’s product was not the greatest initially, but with time and testing, they were able to refine their offering.

We often hear founders talk about errors as great opportunities for improvement. “The key learning has been having the humility to go back to the drawing board and use the feedback to constantly build on how things could be executed better,” Thato says, “The difference in developing a more robust business model and products lies in that.”

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The team’s greatest challenge, Rethaka thinks back, is training their staff in time for the orders to be delivered on the capacity that was in demand. She accredits her team for taking up the active role of training new staff in production, which was critical in passing on company knowledge and skills.

In terms of next steps, Rethaka has outlined goals in a number of areas, including production output, the launching of new products, and increasing the staff headcount. “Our work speaks for itself and even though it is still early days, we are definitely an innovative company to watch over the next five years,” Thato says. “We have little choice but to move beyond being good enough and seek to be remarkable. Remarkable demands initiative on our end, to define what it looks like and to find a way to journey towards that.”

When asked if her team had further reflections on their progress, Thato says “Don’t just start. Stay the course. Ship. Repeat. I have come to learn that “starting” will probably happen more than once — it is important to be open to receiving feedback for the ideas put forward by the business.”

You can read more about Rethaka here.