Having grown up in rural Kwa-Zulu Natal and raised by “Zulu mothers”, Collins (45) has always been acutely aware of the glaring equality gaps between those living in rural areas and those living in urban areas.

She’d witness how “heroic African women” would spend hours collecting fire wood for cooking and then spend hours more perched over a fire with their little ones strapped to their backs.

Her mission from a young age was to seek solutions to problems local community members faced and it was during the rolling blackouts of 2008 that she had her simple – yet effective – eureka moment.

She recalled how her grandmother would cook food with cushions using heat retention, and the Wonderbag was born.

The Wonderbag is a non-electric heat retention cooker that allows food that has been brought to the boil to continue cooking for up to 12 hours without using additional fuel or electricity. It retails from R400.

While the cooker saves users in terms of fuel costs and time taken to collect fire wood, when used three times per week, it’s estimated that the Wonderbag can cut carbon dioxide emissions by half a ton per year.

Besides being a non-electric cooker, the Wonderbag also keeps things cold so it can also be utilised as a distribution channel for vaccines and medicines.

More than 900 000 bags have been sold around the world and Collins expects to reach the 1 million mark by next month.

With the help of Unilever, among other partners, the Wonderbag is distributed in 25 countries globally including the US, UK, Turkey and Mexico and is available on Amazon, a partnership that has accelerated growth by 300% year-on-year.

Striking a balance

The most challenging aspect about social entrepreneurship, she says, is balancing the social and commercial elements of business.

“It’s that balance that has been the biggest challenge for me. Being deeply committed to my customers and balancing the commercial reality to make sure my customers are being empowered commercially as well as allowing us to scale up the business,” she says.

“One of the things I’ve realised is that you have to have different models to suit different markets.”

Collins also negotiated the ‘buy one, give one’ programme where for each Wonderbag that’s sold in North America, one Wonderbag gets donated to a family in need in Africa.

Collins’ says her biggest regrets while building her business were not following her gut instinct, trying to grow the business too quickly and employing the wrong people.

“When you’re expanding and scaling your business you become overwhelmed and so you panic and think you need to take on people who know more than you, who have MBAs. You start bringing in people to the business that you probably haven’t done the proper background checks, you hire too quickly and culturally it’s the wrong fit,” she says.

“It takes a lot of investment to bring new people into your business. Assessing who was going to walk the journey with me is something I wish I had spent more time on in the beginning.”

Collins’ success strategies

  • When you’re overwhelmed, take a step back and stop. Don’t just hire people because you’re scared. Rather stop and hire people slowly. Bring on the right people and fire fast. The minute you have the wrong people in your business don’t give them a second day – get rid of them the same day because it’s the rotten apples that stick around and are problematic.
  • Part of an entrepreneur’s psychological makeup is that you’re chasing and you want to grow your business fast, but you make mistakes that way. People promise the earth and don’t deliver so rather go slow and grow your business organically.
  • Learn how to say no. This means assessing the opportunities that come your way – you don’t need to follow them all. Follow opportunities that align to your vision and what’s core to your business.
  • Be careful of placing too much trust in others, and rather follow your gut. I spent too much money on what other people told me was going to be successful. Everytime I go against my gut because I believe that other people know better, it’s invariably wrong.
  • It’s critically important to have somebody you can trust to guide you from a mentorship perspective in those starting years.