January 23, 2013 | Education, Environment, Innovation

The Bag Lady of Davos

Her innovative cooking device just might save the planet.

A happy cook uses the Wonderbag invented by Sarah Collins.

As an army of sleek limos and private helicopters converged on the small Swiss town of Davos this week for the World Economic Forum, many of the moguls there came face to face with a South African woman brandishing what looked like an oversized bean bag. It will, she claimed, save women’s lives, keep forests from being depleted and clean the air.

Sarah Collins is not exaggerating. Her invention, the Wonderbag, harnesses age-old techniques so that people in poor communities can cook with minimal fuel. She’s already distributed 600,000 of the bags. Her mission in coming to Davos was to build international visibility for the Wonderbag so she can reach her goal of 100 million of them in use by 2023.

What’s the magic? The insulated Wonderbag allows food that has been brought to a boil to continue cooking without extra heat. That means that less fuel is needed—which is important because 50 percent of the world’s population still cooks on an open fire. Wood-fire cooking is risky, for many reasons— aside from the obvious danger of burns and smoke inhalation. The majority of those who collect cooking firewood are women, who often walk miles for this chore and run the risk of being raped on their way. At the Dadaal Refugee Camp in Kenya, for instance, 68 percent of reported rapes occurred when women were gathering firewood.

"I was inspired to create the Wonderbag while working in South Africa on economic empowerment projects," says Collins. "I had tried everything from earthworm farming to vegetable gardens but the most urgent need was always a shortage of cooking fuels and the large amounts of time that it took to cook traditional African meals. I decided to try heat retention cooking and it worked."

The Wonderbag has already gotten backing from Nedbank and Unilever, and Collins is ambitious for the future. "My immediate goal is to raise the funding and partners… Thereafter [the goal is] a Wonderbag in every home!"

What’s truly wondrous about Wonderbag is that it’s transforming lives and communities. So far 2,000 jobs have been created, and "we have seen more girls in schools, as a result of not having to spend all day collecting firewood," says Collins. "We have seen young children getting better medical care as a result of mothers now having the time and money to take their children to clinics in Rwanda."

If Collins reaches her goal of 100 million Wonderbags that would save an estimated 170 million trees a year, create 100,000 new jobs, and avoid 100 million tons of carbon per year. Now that’s a recipe for change.

To learn more about the Wonderbag and Sarah Collins, visit www.nb-wonderbag.com