Written by Sharon Atkins

Have you heard of the Wonderbag? A super simple new method of ‘slow cooking’ that is energy efficient and time saving.

Who is behind it?

Sarah Collins, a South African Entrepreneur came up the idea of the Wonderbag. Her background is in social development with a huge passion for the environment and conservation. Having spent 10 years in community-based tourism in the Okavango Delta, Botswana, she returned to South Africa in early 2000. She realised that poverty alleviation projects were the key to grassroots conservation in Africa. Spending 5 years with the NGO, LoveLife, Sarah implemented an environmental youth leadership programme named Take Back.

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.

How it started

In 2008 when South Africa was experiencing power cuts and rolling blackouts, Sarah Collins, frustrated with her half-cooked dinners, remembered how her grandmother had surrounded her pans with cushions to keep them cooking after she turned the stove off. So she tried it… and it worked!

“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, and 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 institutionalised, and I think I just found it.'”

Sarah also started thinking about the millions of families in developing countries that cook on stoves fuelled by kerosene, paraffin or wood. These stoves and fires aren’t just polluting, they make entire homes too smoky to breathe in, cause house fires, burn children, swallow wage packets and cause serious illnesses. Wood-fire cooking is the source of major social, economic, and environmental issues in Africa, says the entrepreneur. “A typical woman will cook food in a pot over an open fire, and will have to monitor the pot for hours.”

The bag saves about 30 percent of a family’s income when they make the change. “They save water, the risk of disease and death from smoke inhalation is reduced,” she says. “Deforestation is minimised, and time is freed up to allow children to go back to school and women to seek employment.”

A good friend of Sarah’s sewed up the first prototype Wonderbag. Amazingly, when tested in labs, they found that food that was heated to boiling point for just a few minutes on the stove and then transferred to the Wonderbag, carried on cooking and remained hot for up to 12 hours.

Sarah brought her first bag to a grandmother she knew who cared for nine orphans. The woman earned a meagre 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.”

“The Wonderbag was developed to ease the social, economic and environment impacts of these circumstances. Having the Wonderbag would empower the women to feed their families, generate an income, and save them time.”

How it Works

The Wonderbag is a non-electric, heat-retention cooker that allows food that has been brought to a boil on a stove, to continue cooking for hours after it has been removed from the heat.

You start anything you cook in the Wonderbag on the stove (recipes range from beef stew to rice and maize meal), bringing your pot to a boil for around five minutes. Turn off the heat, put the lid on the pot and place it in the Wonderbag, pull the drawstring tight and let it sit for your desired amount of time. A tender beef stew will take about four hours, but you can leave your food in the Wonderbag for up to 12 hours without it falling below a safe temperature.

The way it works is that the bag uses heat retention to cook, says Collins. The bag slows the cooking process, she says, “by insulating the heat, allowing for more cooking time.” She adds: “There are many factors that play into how hot the pot stays and for how long; cast iron and metal work best, the fuller the pot the better for heat retention. The bag is filled with repurposed foam remnant chips from furniture factories. “This material would otherwise end up in a landfill.”

Where it is Available

Available on various on-line shopping sites in South Africa and on their website www.wonderbag.co.za. The Wonderbag is also sold throughout the US through Amazon, and Sarah’s new goal is to sell one million to people worldwide. For every bag sold, one is donated to a family in need.

 

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