Social Entrepreneur. Business

Based: Johannesburg

Thato Kgatlhanye sees the potential in everything. For her, there is latent possibility everywhere. Possessing a unique ability to see beyond the surface, she finds the extraordinary in the seemingly simple. Not yet 23-years old, this social entrepreneur and businesswoman has taken something has ordinary as a plastic shopping bag and turned it into an innovative backpack, bringing dignity and hope to children across the country.

Straight off a plane from Rustenburg where her company, Rethaka Trading, is based, Thato is all massive smiles and warm hugs, even though Cape Town has greeted her moodily: clouds are gathering forebodingly over the southern suburbs, the location of her portrait shoot. She pulls out one of the schoolbags that has brought her such widespread attention. It’s compact and stylish and you would never guess that it had once been a Checkers shopping packet.

Repurpose Schoolbags started as a university assignment to ‘create something’. Seeing beyond an initial idea to make a bag out of recyclable plastic, Thato imagined greater possibilities: “I looked at it and realised it could actually be more that just another school bag. And I asked ‘What else can it do? What else can it do for a child?’”

Durable and waterporoof so that learners don’t get their schoolbooks wet, they’re fitted with retro-reflective material and a solar power unit. This innovative feature charges up on the walk to and from school, serving as an alternative source of light in dark, rural communities. It’s these areas that Thato is focused on reaching. “It’s a child’s way of having dignity,” she explains. “Imagine going from carrying your school bags in a plastic bag, or under your jersey to now having a schoolbag. That’s big.”

She sees her bags the same way she she sees society. Not everyone would notice the potential in a plastic bag. Tatho thinks we all need to look a bit closer. We all have the potential to make an impact and create change, but it’s having that potential recognised, nurtured and encouraged that can make all the difference. “You can start with nothing and create so much more than you can even imagine. And all it takes is the willingness to show up. If you don’t show up, it will never happen.”

This optimism and intuitive patience was evident on set. Adorning the branches of an enormous tree with solar-powered jars turned out to be a slow process, since the foreboding clouds fulfilled on their promise of rain, and the jars wouldn’t light up until the last ray of light had disappeared. Thato waited. As darkness fell, the jars lit up – one by one. Her patience was rewarded with a wonderland-esqu scene that she looked right at home in. But in life, Thato’s got no time to waste. “The world is waiting on you,” she says, lit with the enthusiasm of a woman who has found her purpose. “How long are you going to make people wait? How long are you going to sit around, not doing any meaningful work? Go.”