Ten Questions with Africa's Struggling Billionaire!

aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaAsked why she opted for the name “Struggling Billionaire ” as her assumed name, Thato remarked , ‘ As for my assumed name, there aren’t enough African billionaires. Hence, I decided I’d just add myself to the list because although I’m rich, my bank account doesn’t know it yet.’       

Anzisha Prize, which seeks to award young entrepreneurs in Africa, who by hardwork have developed creative products to serve as solution to social challenges, has selected  Thato Kgatlhanye among other innovators for this year’s event. Luckily for her, she was among other semi-finalists for this year’s event.   

In order to soothe our curiosity, Silicon Africa sat down with Thato, a degree holder from  Vega School  of Brand Leadership, where she majored in Brand building and Management, to discuss about her maiden product : ‘ Repurpose Schoolbags’ which compelled organisers of Anzisha Prize to select her for this year’s event.     

‘Repurpose Schoolbags’, an initiative of  Rethaka (Pty) Ltd  – a 100% black owned company – is a recycled bag that charges up during the day and transforms into a light so that children could study efficiently and effectively in the night.

In this Interview, Thato on behalf of her co-founders, emphasized on the relevance of Solar bags in Africa’s educational sector, how to promote green revolution and societal development in Africa.

 SACould you please tell us about Yourself and Rethaka?   

Thato:  I am the self-titled “Struggling Billionaire” because I believe the experience of doing work that matters in my community is what already makes me rich. At the age of 18, I decided to stop knocking doors & decided to build my own as a serial social entrepreneur. Many times, people wait on senior positions, government, elections and anything else that makes one feel important enough to step-up, speak up and lead.

Through co-founding a social enterprise called “Rethaka” with friends (Rea and Katlego Ngwane), we decided to pick ourselves as the inspiring young leaders we were desperately yearning to see in Rustenburg, South Africa. It all started during school holidays and we had a burning hunger to do something remarkable. At that time, we could put our fingers on what exactly we were going to get ourselves into. All we knew for sure was that: we wanted to be part of a generation of young people that poked the box, did things unimaginable and had the humility to uplift our community with innovative ideas.


SA:  What’s the major goal of Rethaka?

Thato :   Rethaka was set up to be a radical idea of uncovering opportunities. This means that we choose to zig while others zag. We thrive on thinking differently about societal problems and making them work for us , not control us. We do this by redefining societal problems as  Solutions. Where other people see problems, we probe and question how a problem could in fact become a solution if perceived differently. We then use innovation as a means of arriving at ideas that bring about the social change.

SA:  Could you brief us on Rethaka’s Latest innovation?  

Thato: We make “Repurpose schoolbags” for children who cannot afford to buy one. Inspired to learn, these children currently make-do by carrying their school books in plastic bags. They inspired us to do more with less, through innovating the Repurpose Schoolbag.

It is an upcycled schoolbag made from 20 plastic bags. It integrates a solar panel that charges up during the day and transforms into a light so that kids can study after dark.

repurpose schoolbags

SA: What are some of the unique features of ‘Repurpose Schoolbags’?  

Thato:     We bring together upcycling, solar energy and a safer environment for school children. One schoolbag affords a child the following:
• Dignity: Made from 20 plastic bags, a child can carry their books in an eco-friendly, and sturdy schoolbag.
• Extended study time: Increased working hours after dark with a solar energy light source. With learners completing their homework, educators can monitor the progress of their teaching.
• Safety and visibility while walking: Increased visibility of child pedestrians while walking to school through the integration of reflective material.


SA :    How would children within the South African community benefit from your latest Innovation?  

Thato  : Children will have a sense of dignity, which is something that is mostly important for any child. We made the Repurpose schoolbag not to be just a schoolbag, but rather a companion for a child with a burning hunger to learn. A companion that would stay up with a child who would love to “burn the midnight oil” but literally cannot afford to do so with the high costs of kerosene. One that would be by the side of a child who braves the 5am darkness and cold on their walk to school, just to get a chance to raise their hand in class.

Through extending the time they have to do homework after dark, children are now afforded the time to take part in recreational activities after school and engage in family activities. The schoolbags also plays a role in aiding children feel less vulnerable while walking to school as they are more visible to motorists. In general, children are encouraged to attend school regularly regardless of the barriers standing in their way.

SA :   As a Social Entrepreneur, is there any hope for societal development in Africa?

Thato : I’d like to be brave and say we are beyond the point of hope. We are now moving into a space where development is no longer wishful thinking but we are making things happen for ourselves. We now have more Africans putting their hands up and choosing to lead the development in their communities.

The significance of having people who are in touch with local realities leading the development is that, we have solutions that have an input from locals and getting buy-in flexible. We are also starting to see a lot more connections happening with people on the ground and people sitting in conference rooms. This means : skills sharing, knowledge and support is being transferred to the people who have a deep understanding of what kind of social change needs to happen. I think there isn’t a better time to be living in Africa than right now!

SA:  How would Rethaka as a unit or team help to promote green revolution in Africa?  

Thato :  Our biggest achievement has been creating sustainable employment opportunities for women. So far, we have employed 7 women and 1 man on a full-time basis. Our team’s drive and willingness to work is what has led us to receiving external recognition:

• 2013 SAB Foundation Innovation Award recipient
• 1 of 18 Redbull Amaphiko supported initiatives
• 2014 Echoing Green Fellowship Semifinalist
• 2014 Anzisha Prize semi-finalist

SA : Do you have a word for Social Investors?  

Thato:   We need investors coming to the table with what the Acumen Fund has coined as “Patient capital”. Investing in social impact is usually a hard task for investors in the early stages of a social business. Certain trade-offs have to be made between profit and impact. Real change in the long term requires dealing with complex decisions. This often means that there are grey areas whereby for instance, empathy and not efficiency has to take precedence.

I think social investors need to realise that with every social venture they consider to invest in, they have the opportunity to design the blueprint of what it takes to bring about social change, and that ought to be something remarkable enough to be worth taking a bet on.

SA:  How can our readers contact you as well as Rethaka? 

Thato: Company: Rethaka (Pty) Ltd
Website: www.repurposeschoolbags.com
Facebook: facebook.com/Repurpose Schoolbags

Twitter @Strugglin Billi
Email: tkgatlhanye@gmail.com

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One Response to “Ten Questions with Africa's Struggling Billionaire!”

  1. Hank Wilson

    Which way is up and which way is down. Kind of like the so called middle-east, like where is the middle-west, the middle-south and middle-north. Now, we're all confused.


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