This Nonelectric Slow Cooker Is Helping the Environment and Empowering Women

The Wonderbag eliminates hours of cooking over an open fire.
Sarah Collins, founder and CEO of Wonderbag. (Photo: Courtesy Wonderbag)
Dec 21, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Esha Chhabra is a journalist who covers social enterprise, technology for social impact, and development.

A new slow cooker that doesn’t require electricity could be the answer to the developing world’s battle for cleaner cookstoves.

South Africa–based Sarah Collins launched Wonderbag in 2008. As of November, the company has sold or donated more than 1 million of the portable, nonelectric slow cookers.

Given that, according to the World Health Organization, more than 4 million people die every year from household air pollution, Collins’ invention could be a new option in what has been a hotly debated issue.

This fall, The Washington Post published a piece arguing that clean cookstoves, despite all the funding, awareness (including celebrity ambassadors such as Julia Roberts), and support around them, have not been as helpful as anticipated.

By 2016, the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves projects having 63 million cookstoves on the market. By 2020, it plans on making that 100 million—a goal set by Hillary Clinton when she launched the campaign in 2010.

But not all cookstoves are equal, says the Post. Of the 28 million cookstoves in the field as of 2014, only a fraction, or 8.2 million, run on clean fuels, such as LPG, ethanol, biogas, or electricity. The majority rely on agricultural waste, animal waste, charcoal, or simply wood.

The Wonderbag creates a hybrid solution: The meal cooks on a fire for a short period of time and then gets wrapped in the bag. The bag keeps cooking the meal, as any slow cooker does, and keeps it warm for up to 12 hours. The company says the invention is based on the “oldest technology in the world—heat retention cooking.”

Not only that, but the Wonderbag doesn’t ask households to deviate from cooking on fires, unlike electric or clean-energy cookstoves. That, Collins says is one of the “biggest issues” in the “cultural relevance and adoption rates of clean cooking technologies.”

“The behavior change is just too big a jump,” she explains. “I feel it’s essential to take into consideration the cultural, ethical, and spiritual relevance of fires in many indigenous cultures. To take this away is taking away the heart of the home.”

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That “heart of the home,” however, is the cause of pollution and sickness, argues the Global Alliance. In fact, one study says household air pollution from burning “solid fuel,” or biomass and charcoal, is the “leading environmental cause of death and disability in the world.”

So could Collins’ invention be the sure-shot solution? Yes and no.

The bag does eliminate hours of cooking over a fire. However, it doesn’t eliminate the fire altogether, meaning that some air pollution will still occur. It does reduce the amount of wood or burning fuel needed—a savings for the family, and ozone-friendly.

But it’s still pricey. At $67 a unit, it’s sold not only on the African continent but also in developed markets in the U.S., U.K., Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. It’s even available on Amazon. Wonderbag also employs the buy-one-give-one model, turning around a donated Wonderbag to a low-income family for each one purchased in North America.

To make the product more accessible to people in rural Africa, Collins set up a women’s entrepreneur program, aptly called Wonderpreneurs. The women receive a commission from the bags they sell, which are priced according to local markets, anywhere from $25 to $35. Today, Collins says, there is an army of 1,000 lady entrepreneurs in several countries, including Ghana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Somaliland.

(Photo: Courtesy Wonderbag)

The supply chain is inventive and eco-conscious. The bags are sewn in South Africa, offering jobs to locals. Although the stuffing is styrene, a material that doesn’t decay or recycle easily, Collins gets it from furniture and upholstery factories—waste that would otherwise be chucked in the trash.

For Collins, this is a clear passion project. She says it stems from having grown up in South Africa during apartheid; that sense of inequality in society never escaped her. Wanting to do something for women and the environment, she combined the two with Wonderbag, a product that caters to the needs of women and alleviates some cooking pollution.

As a farm girl growing up in the countryside, Collins says she recalls her grandmother making food in large pots and wrapping them with blankets to keep warm. That also helped them reduce the amount of fuel they used as a family. Over the years, she realized that cultures around the world bury their food to help it cook slowly, prompting her to create a prototype for Wonderbag.

The ancient technique has caught the attention of Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever. Polman invited Collins to the U.K. to provide a demo to his colleagues. Since that presentation in 2011, Collins says, Polman has become a supporter of the brand, helping her identify new venues to showcase.

“The Wonderbag offers a practical and effective solution to tackling climate change, improving health, and enhancing nutrition. Sarah Collins and her Wonderbag have once more shown that simple solutions are already here to rise to this challenge,” Polman said, celebrating Wonderbag’s million-products-sold milestone.

In fact, to celebrate that momentous occasion, the company organized a “Wonderfeast” in Soweto, Johannesburg, where the first Wonderbag was sold.

The food for 5,000 guests was, of course, prepared in the bags.