Meet – Thato Kgatlhanye

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Thato Kgatlhanye
Thato Kgatlhanye – All images provided by Thato Kgatlhanye

The advent of the Social Entrepreneur has come with new innovations, ideas and, of course, social change. However, these creatives, with their desire to change the world, are simply not enough! Below, Thato Kgatlhanye speaks to us about the launch of her social venture, Rethaka (Pty) Ltd, a company responsible for the manufacture and distribution of repurpose schoolbags for underprivileged South African schoolchildren, and the importance of young entrepreneurs to contribute towards society…

Full name: Thato Kgatlhanye
Age: 21
Current title: Social Entrepreneur, Author of “Building an Empire”, Speaker, Struggling Billionaire

Company: Rethaka (Pty) Ltd, we would like to think of ourselves as more of an empire than just a company. We are the force behind the social innovation known as the “Repurpose Schoolbag”

Educational background: BA in Brand Building & Management, VEGA
Current city: Rustenburg & Johannesburg


Thato, what you have created is not only unique and innovative, but selfless and noble too! We couldn’t believe it when we discovered that you and your business partner, Rea Ngwane, created schoolbags made from 100% recycled plastic bags that integrate a solar panel which extend children’s study hours after dark! Absolutely amazing! Could you take us through the journey that led to this idea?

Rea and myself will have to admit that the Repurpose Schoolbag idea was not a magical light-bulb moment. It started out as an assignment I had done in varsity and at this point it was just a backpack made from upcycled plastic. I then told Rea about it and together we decided to push the idea and prototype it further to what it is today. We had registered our company when we were 18 and decided this would be the first viable business venture to pursue.

At the heart of developing the idea, I was thinking about how differently the journey of getting an education looks like for a child coming from a low-income household. We realised that we had an opportunity to solve some of the problems that these children face while also looking after the environment. For example the integration of the solar component is necessary as some would love the privilege of burning the midnight oil, but they literally cannot afford to do so and are faced with “rationing” candles. Moreover, walking long distances without any safety measures in place, called for the integration of reflective material for increased visibility while they walk to school.

We have been blessed with some awards and recognition on our journey thus far. We were award recipients at the 2013 SAB Innovation awards, 1 of 18 Redbull Amaphiko supported initiatives, 2014 Echoing Green Fellowship Semifinalist and also recently invited to exhibit at the SA Innovation Summit.

Your company, Rethaka (Pty) Ltd is a for-profit social enterprise co-founded by yourself and your business partner, Rea Ngwane. Could you give us a glimpse into this new venture and tell us your responsibilities in this role?

Rethaka was set up to be a radical idea of uncovering opportunities. This means that we choose to zig while others zag, which often times means we take a lot of risks! Setting up our business required a lot of courage. Both Rea and myself didn’t study towards being able to run a manufacturing business. We basically had to do a lot of prototyping and failed a lot of times too.

Our company currently employs 8 people, 7 of which are women. We have set up a workshop in Rustenburg where we produce these bags. We have partnered up with private schools such as St Mary’s DSG and St Peter’s College to collect plastic bags for us. We then turn these into a durable plastic material we call “PurposeTextile” and sew bags out of this. We approach corporates or individuals to sponsor Repurpose schoolbags and gift these to children at government subsidized schools known as “No-fee schools”.

My responsibilities in particular include everything that has to do with the branding of our business. At any given time, I juggle the following roles: copywriter, designer, PR, social media strategist, and anything else that needs to be done really.

As the co-founder of Rethaka (Pty) Ltd, could you give us one major tip you have learnt about business acumen and leadership?

When all hell is breaking loose, keep your eye on the prize and hustle.

Rethaka (Pty) Ltd describes itself as a “purpose-driven business that does what is right, not what is easy” – although Social Entrepreneurship has certainly been on the rise in recent years, it isn’t picking up fast enough, more so in a country with key societal issues. How important is it that more people become social entrepreneurs, and what social awareness do you hope to create?

repurpose_schoolbagsThe concept of “social entrepreneurship” is still largely not understood as a viable career to pursue and in some instances has never even been heard of. To this day, I still get messages from corporate professionals on LinkedIn, asking what being a social entrepreneur means. Being in a developing country we need to recognise that we face a lot of systemic social problems that contribute to hindering how we perform in our economy. Having CSI or CSR is not enough. We need more businesses that put that put social impact and environmental impact at the top of their agenda.

Do you feel a responsibility to contribute towards this country?

Everyone owes it to themselves to see what this country could become if we all pulled our weight and contributed towards its success. Personally, I feel a responsibility on my shoulders as a young person to tell a different story than to settle for the whole “Government is failing us” story. That is the truth I seek to live everyday and if government does decide to do something, they’ll find us ahead, already making the best of the situation.

As an entrepreneur, what is the biggest risk you have taken so far?

Going into this business has been the biggest risk, period. We came up with a social innovation, which means we couldn’t learn from any other businesses as no one is doing this kind of thing. We didn’t have anything in our background that would ensure we could manufacture these schoolbags on a large scale and go to market as quickly as we did.

But what we did have was the willingness to try and we rolled with the punches. And if you ask me, doing something that might not work makes for a great story!

Your passion for children and the community at large is certainly evident. What legacy do you hope to leave?

For others to believe in their dreams. That’s the reason I wake up every morning.

As a social entrepreneur and business owner, what have been the biggest challenges or obstacles you’ve faced in your career and how have you been able to overcome them?

Fear is the biggest challenge. And I’ve had to learn how to do what Seth Godin calls “dancing with fear”. This means acknowledging it and learning to work with it.Also, my faith in God has played a major role in overcoming some of the obstacles I’ve faced. In some instances I believe it was God’s grace that brought me through it and I can’t take full credit for the ability to bounce back.

What is a typical workday like for you?

In one word: Crazy. For the sake of being real, I will share what my Monday went like:

Recording voice-overs for our campaign video, help clients place their orders, liaising the quotations to be done with Rea and getting an update on production, going to a radio station for an interview, finalizing edits of a magazine feature we were doing, updating social media platforms, restocking business cards and flyers, arranging details for our upcoming business trip to Cape Town, responding to the emails for the day. All of this was done between 5AM and 5PM. And that’s just my day shift. At night I worked on compiling proposals, practicing pitching, researching and applying for opportunities. And yes, I don’t sleep much.

What is most fulfilling about being your own boss?

I am quite the ungovernable person so it just works out better for everyone that I am my own boss. I also recognise myself as creative and being my own boss allows for my creativity to come alive without some manager poking their nose into my work or any dogmatic systems holding me back. Lastly, nothing beats being able to take a nap after lunchtime.

Advice for aspiring business owners and social entrepreneurs?

Drop the “aspiring” and get to it! Quit waiting for someone to pick you as an intern or to get that promotion. Pick yourself up and start the journey towards finding your greatness today. I always say “the world is waiting on who you are becoming. How long will you make everyone wait?”Don’t make us wait a day longer!


Morning or night?

I’ll take the Night Shift any day.

If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and what would you order?

It would have to be with one of the abducted Nigerian girls. I believe they will live to tell their story and return home. Hearing the story of what they would have overcome over tea sounds like a good idea. The thought of this makes me hopeful.

I wish I knew how to speak French fluently. I did it in highschool but my tongue just refuses to cooperate.

African women aredefining themselves now more than ever.

South Africa iswriting the pages of its story, and I hope it will be a story worth sharing 50 years from now.

Worst money mistakeI bought a waffle with extravagant toppings the other day and it made me sick. Serves me right for cheating on my healthy eating.

Best investment trip to Mozambique last December to do some volunteer work.

Motivation in 3 words Live your potential.

For more info on Rethaka (Pty) Ltd business visit:

Follow Thato on twitter: @strugglingbilli

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