Thato Kgatlhanye

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Finalist 2015 for Sub-Saharan Africa

Thato Kgatlhanye

Rethaka Trading, SOUTH AFRICA
Recycles plastic shopping bags into solar powered schoolbags that charge up during the day and transform into a light at night.
Thato Kgatlhanye launched her company when she was 18. As she was about to start her undergraduate degree, she came up with an idea to help underprivileged pupils who face challenges with their education. Rethaka – literally meaning “we are fellows” – encourages children to attend school and learn effectively.
A long way to school
Disadvantaged children encounter barriers to learn due to a lack of basic school supplies such as schoolbags. Numerous children in South Africa walk to school for sometimes more than 30 minutes carrying their books. School children leave home early in the morning and walk on roads that are not designed for pedestrian usage – a journey which can often prove risky. Road safety has become a significant issue in the country as children are exposed to the danger of being hit by cars due to limited visibility.
“I’ve tried to build a company that not only looks at children but also looks at employing women, looks at how we can improve the environment. It’s a multifaceted company.”
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Solar backpacks
Rethaka has developed a way of providing a solution to increase children’s safety and help them do better in school. The company manufactures repurposed schoolbags fitted with retro-reflective material to increase visibility. These solar-powered bags are also constructed to continue working after dark. “Each bag is fitted with a solar panel that charges as the child is walking to school. When they get back home, they can use it as a light to study”, says Thato. “We are offering dignity, safety and access to light.”
Doing more with less
To create their product, Thato has set up a sustainable manufacturing process. Each schoolbag is made of 20 plastic shopping bags that are up-cycled into a textile. All offcuts are used to design a signature pattern on the bags. “We’ve tried to create a company that does more with less.” Thato also aims to create change in the mindset of her local community. “The indirect impact we are making is to our communities, teaching them the value in waste.”
“When it comes to the issue of gender inequality, I think society needs to take a conscious effort to look at both male and female and not try to achieve equality but rather achieve a sense of balance, because at the end of the day we’re all human.”
10,000
“We’ve got targets for the year, we would like to do 10,000 bags by the end of 2015 which is very audacious but I believe we can do it with the current staff that we have. We are 15 but I hope to at least grow to 20 by the end of the year.”

Whats' new?

On October 18, 2015 Thato was named one of the South African Icons in the "21 Icons" season 3. With Season 1 featuring icons such as Nelson Mandela, Thato described this selection as a great honor.