The social entrepreneur and eco-industrialist has a revolutionary view of waste as a resource. She’s also impressed Bill Gates
“We need to stop living for ourselves”
Thato Kgatlhanye is CEO of Rethaka, a South African company whose best-known product is a school bag made from recycled plastic waste.
Each bag has a solar panel that charges during the day so children from impoverished rural areas, who often don’t have access to electricity, can study at night.
A graduate of the Red Bull Amaphiko Academy, an initiative which empowers people who’ve come up with solutions to social problems affecting their communities, Kgatlhanye believes this is just the start. She sees opportunity all around her, even where others only see waste…
THE RED BULLETIN: How and when did you first develop your awareness of the need for social change?
THATO KGATLHANYE: When I was 20, I attended a conference in Dublin. They talked about the ‘circular economy’ and how, with decreasing resources, we should think about waste differently. It was a real awakening. It taught me that you shouldn’t look at things as they are, but as they could be.
Are you constantly on the lookout for potential changes you could make, things that could be approached differently?
Yes, I am. Look at the way we view waste, the way we collect and process it. I’m involved in building a company for the future. Many of the lessons we’re able to draw from, and the work that we do, will set the tone for how governments and some companies view the economy, and will help them realise what’s possible. Take our school bags – this gave us the opportunity to build a case study from end to end with a project that looks at waste as a resource.
How far away do you think we are from mining landfills and dumps?
We already mine landfills. Many companies claim that they recycle, but they don’t really, they just sell the waste on to the next guy.
And you see value in landfills and dumps?
Yes. And it’s not just mining for the sake of it and then selling it off in the way we do with our natural resources in Africa. I’m talking about things like the way we mine platinum in Rustenburg, send it to Europe to be processed, and when it’s returned, we can’t even afford to buy it. It’s about using the resources we extract. I’m trying to take traditional thinking and turn it on its head. Ask how we, as a business, not just make money, but create products that currently don’t even exist. Which is a very different way of thinking.
What motivates you?
Being able to create something out of nothing. I’m grateful I found my purpose so early in life and that I’ve already seen it through.
What is the one thing that we could do now to change the world for the better tomorrow?
We need to stop living for ourselves and we should start to concern ourselves with what we’re doing to future generations. We have to ask ourselves what sort of impact we’re going to leave behind, so that in the future people will be better off than us and won’t be born into pain and strife. People shouldn’t have to struggle, environmentally, socially or economically.
Would you call yourself an environmentalist?
I would say I’m an industrialist and I have an eye that looks for gaps that humanity has yet to close. I’m a circular economy industrialist!
Your product idea and its development has been widely praised. And now you hang out with Bill Gates and are praised by him. How does that make you feel?
The work that’s being talked about is stuff that we worked on three years ago. But now people are starting to understand what’s possible. The purpose of our work is to encourage people to think differently. This is the thing that makes me happy, creating a legacy which is going to help business leaders run their organisations better. Hopefully, this will benefit not just South Africa, but the whole continent of Africa.
Do you have a motto?
Think in years, plan in months, work in days.