Posted by Sarah Collins
CEO, Wonderbag

As the CEO of Wonderbag I have spent the last several days with my partner Microsoft at COP17. 20,000 attendees, representing 191 countries and 12 heads of state, all descended on Durban, South Africa, where I live and run my business. We experienced some very busy days and long nights as we spent time meeting with government leaders, NGOs and the private sector to promote what started as a simple idea and is now starting to have a real impact in South Africa and beyond.

Heat retention cooking is nothing new. For centuries people have covered cooking utensils to retain heat and cook food, a Second World War haybox is just one example. With Wonderbag, what is new is both the innovative design of the cooking bag and the business model behind the initiative. The bag itself consists of two recycled polystyrene filled cushions. The bottom bigger cushion creating a nest for the pot and a smaller top cushion that acts as a lid to ensure optimal insulation. They are easy to wash, easy to transport and more importantly easy to produce at a local level.

Acting locally has been a pillar of our strategy from the beginning. The business model not only prioritizes sustainability but also job creation. Each Wonderbag is hand-sewn in communities around South Africa. To fulfill our next order from Unilever of five million bags in South Africa we will employ more than 8,000 people over the next five years.

Households can save up to a third of their monthly expenditure by using a Wonderbag three to four times a week; every woman who cooks using a Wonderbag saves time by not having to source fuel or stay near the kitchen during the cooking process. In addition, food does not burn; the kitchen is a safer place for children and less time around open fires means a healthier environment.

Ensuring the sustainability of all these advantages is the carbon funding business model. If a Wonderbag is used three to four times a week, 500 kilograms of carbon is saved every year, we have had this verified and audited by the UNFCC. This allows us to trade half a ton of carbon per bag per year, which subsidizes the Wonderbag and allows us to scale.

So how does Microsoft fit into all of this? We are in the business of Wonderbags “being used”, however for the process to work, Wonderbag needs to keep track of every single Wonderbag and that’s where technology and Microsoft come in.

We first started working with Microsoft South Africa in 2010 when we approached them to help us to develop a solution that would enable field workers to register new Wonderbag users via a mobile phone. Working together with innovation firm frog, Microsoft was able to provide us with the technology we needed. And over the last few days here at COP17 we have agreed to take this to the next level.

I was surprised to learn about a geospatial mapping solution called Eye on Earth that Microsoft announced at COP17 with the European Environment Agency and their technology partner Esri. Eye on Earth is a cloud based application development platform and online community for environmental data sharing. We’ve determined that this same technology can be used to host an online application to graphically map information on where Wonderbags are in use and how much carbon they save. We have even been discussing the addition of a heat sensor, in the bottom of every Wonderbag, to automatically track its use and map that back to the carbon algorithms. This is still early days, but a developer has already mocked up the first version of the application for us.

At Wonderbag we believe that we have the wind behind us with this project because of the times that we live in. Climate change awareness is at an all-time high, the value of energy is appreciated like never before and there are now mechanisms that award and support those who are trying to do the right thing. When technology and environmental solutions join forces we can make a difference in every household.

Just as Bill Gates was driven the by goal of a PC on every desktop, we will achieve a Wonderbag in every kitchen.