Solar powered backpack helps South African children cope with rolling blackouts

Made from recycled plastic, an innovative new school bag is assisting students from impoverished communities in South Africa study at night. Using solar technology, the bags are powered during the day and light up homes which are either not connected to the national power grid or are in the dark because of frequent electricity cuts.

RUSTENBURG, SOUTH AFRICA (REUTERS) – Nine-year-old Kamogelo Tsopodi-Malinga has just left school and is heading home. Once he gets there, he unpacks his school bag and immediately starts doing his homework.

Kamogelo is one of many school children living in impoverished communities around South Africa who have been affected by increasing powercuts and rising electricity costs.

But an innovative new solar powered school bag is helping pupils like Kamogelo study at home after school.

Known as “Repurpose Schoolbags,” they have built-in solar technology that charges during the day while the pupil walks to school.

The solar panel lid is inserted inside the front pocket of the bag. Once the pupil gets home, he takes it out and screws it back onto a consol solar jar that can last upto 12 hours.

“It helps me a lot when there is no electricity because I take the lamp and use that for lighting in order to read and do my homework,” said Kamogelo.

Africa’s most advanced economy is facing its worst electricity crisis since 2008 and its citizens are subjected to frequent controlled blackouts, which South African utility Eskom implements to prevent the grid from collapsing.

Although the percentage of households with electricity in cities has increased over the years, many families in poor neighbourhoods and rural communities are still not connected to the country’s power grid.

Wood, charcoal and candles offer cheaper alternatives.

“We have a little brother so when Kamogelo was still busy with homework he would want to hold the candle. So now this lamp has helped us a lot as we don’t have a problem even if he touches it, it won’t burn him or anything,” said Kamogelo’s mother, Sophy Tsopodi-Malinga.

The bags are created from recycled plastic bags. At the Repurpose Schoolbags factory in Rustenburg, on the outskirts of Johannesburg, the plastic sheets are cleaned and processed to make them malleable enough to create the bags.

The company gets corporate sponsors to buy school bags in bulk and then distributes them for free to students. The bags are worth about 250 rands (about 20 U.S. dollars) each.

“They’re happy to have a school bag. I remember with the first handover one of the kids cried and I was like this is a bit emotional and it was purely because she was so happy and it’s not often that they get gifts because this is pretty much a gift that’s being given to them,” said Rea Ngwane, Co-Founder of Repurpose Schoolbags.

The bags are also made of retro-reflective material which helps children become more visible on roads as they walk to school.

The design and look of the bag are also important. They are bright and colourful created with the age of the school children in mind.

The company’s founders say feedback from parents has been positive.

“Most importantly what’s helping a lot is the solar lantern. So the parents are coming in and saying ‘my child is able to do work’ and teachers are coming in saying ‘homework is now being done.’ So I think we are affecting all spheres of a child’s life if I can put it that way,” added Ngwane.

Repurpose Schoolbags plans to expand to other countries in Africa where there is still little access to electricity among poorer communities.