The schoolbag from Rustenburg, and the project of Ethical Imagination

Tariq Toffa, Johannesburg Community Manager
Johannesburg, 13 January 2015

While there has been enormous technological innovation over the last two to three decades, the idea of technology has also narrowed, in many cases now almost exclusively referring to information technology. But not only should the concept be broadened again to include other frontiers, it should also strive to be contextually relevant and meaningful. Thus, while there is currently much talk about the high-tech, largely First World concept of the "smart city," in middle- and low-income regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, technology should also play a part in furthering growth and improving living standards, and should not bring further inequality and social disenfranchisement.

One young business, named Rethaka and based in Rustenburg outside Johannesburg, is part of a small but growing number of innovators in South Africa who are making technology speak the language of 'other' contexts. The new company manufactures schoolbags from discarded plastic shopping bags which are up-cycled into trendy backpacks, and markets these to companies with corporate social investment budgets. Other design features of the backpack include a lightweight solar panel inserted into the bag, which charges its batteries during the day, while at night it can provide up to twelve hours of light from small LED lights when inserted on top of a Consol glass jar. The simple technology is designed to allow schoolchildren from underprivileged communities with little or no electricity to study after dark. The schoolbags are also made with reflective material, increasing visibility and safety for children who walk to and from school (three children die daily on South African roads).

Even though the backpacks only went into production as recently as January 2014 and the founding duo are still only in their early twenties, the schoolbag has made news not only in South Africa but around the globe, with an ever-growing number of online articles, appearances on CNN, TEDx, and even a tweet by Bill Gates. Added to this is a slick website as well as two recent awards (first place at the Inventors Garage competition at the SA Innovation Summit, and second place for The Anzisha Prize). Innovation aside, the fame therefore is also due to "a lot of hustling," with both of the two founding duo coming from branding and marketing backgrounds (one has even co-authored a book titled Start an Empire With a Brand).

The story here, however, which should invoke our inspiration and imagination, is more than an African success story of two creative and entrepreneurial childhood friends from rural North West South Africa, or even their individual product per se. More significantly, the Rethaka team also speak lucidly of 'uplifting the greater society', about being 'change agents' and 'plowing knowledge back into a marginalized society', and 'doing work that matters'. This, then, is an imagination and creativity not intimidated or disinterested in sobering or unfamiliar surrounding social realities, preferring more dissociated, unburdened, individualistic or elite forms of creative expression. Rather, it does precisely the opposite; directing its purposes toward it and drawing energy and inspiration from within it.

From this perspective there are already numerous other projects doing this work, in other disciplines, all of which are no less innovative. As an emerging discourse, what they ask from us is much more than praise or recognition, purchasing of products or commissioning of services. Rather, what should inspire our intellects and imaginations, all our disciplines and their particular forms of agency, individually and collectively across the Global South, is the greater project of ethical imagination. And as a country still reeling from 350 years of injustices, South Africa is in desperate need of this.

Photo credits: Rethaka via Facebook; The Vega School via Twitter.

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