Cooking Bag Helps Poor Households Save Time, Money

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions


For millions of poor people around the world, life is lived on the economic margins and household and personal budgets are tight. There were 1.29 billion people in the world living on less than US $1.25 a day as of 2008 (World Bank), and 1.18 billion living on US $1.25 to US $2 per day. There was only a modest drop in the number of people living below US $2 per day – the average poverty line for developing countries – between 1981 and 2008, from 2.59 to 2.47 billion.

Since the global economic crisis erupted in 2008, the world’s poor have seen prices fluctuate wildly as the international financial system fights the effects of the turmoil. In 2008, this led to the Food and Agriculture Organization sounding the alarm about the harmful effects of rising food inflation.

Increasing hunger led to civil unrest and rioting that year.

Anything poor people can do to make their slim daily budgets go a little bit further means more money left over for better quality food and other expenses, like clothing, shelter, fuel and education. One clever invention from South Africa is trying to tackle household cooking costs and shave the cost of fuel required to prepare the family meal. The Wonderbag ( is a brightly coloured, puffy cooking bag that slow cooks a meal in a pot – be it a stew, curry, rice, soups – to save energy.

“The cost and savings per household are significant,” according to the Wonderbag’s inventor, Sarah Collins.

It has many other advantages, too: it is a time-saver, allowing people to spend the time doing something other than just tending the cooking pot. It can also reduce cooking accidents because less time is spent around the stove or fire.

It is an efficient cooking method that uses less water to cook meals. And it even avoids the risk of burning – and wasting – food.

“20 per cent of all staple food in Africa is burned, due to pots being placed on open fires and unregulated stove tops. With the Wonderbag, no burning happens,” confirms Collins.

To date, the Wonderbag has created 1,000 jobs and is looking to increase this to 7,000 jobs in the next five years.

Wonderbag bills itself as “eco-cooking that’s changing lives.”

Eco-cooking seeks to use every joule ( of energy from the cooking fire or heat source to maximum effect. A pot is placed on the stove and brought to the temperature required for cooking the dish. Then the pot is placed in the Wonderbag. Since the bag is heavily insulated, it reflects back the existing heat in the dish and allows it to continue cooking for up to 12 hours. It can cook rice in one hour and lamb in two to three hours.

It works in four easy steps, summed up on the Wonderbag website: “boil it, bag it, stand it, serve it”.

The Wonderbag claims to use 30 per cent less energy than other cooking methods. According to cost breakdowns on the Wonderbag website, someone with a Wonderbag would use 2.4 litres a week of paraffin – a common fuel for cook stoves – compared to 4 litres without. This works out to a cost of US $2.40 a week with a Wonderbag and US $4.00 a week without.

The trade-off with the savings in money and energy is time – Wonderbag is not suitable for those looking for a quick meal. According to Wonderbag, meat that cooks in 20 minutes on the stove will take five hours in the Wonderbag.

Chicken that takes 15 minutes on the stove takes three hours in the Wonderbag. Vegetables that take five minutes on the stove will cook in an hour in the Wonderbag.

South African entrepreneur and inventor Collins originally developed the Wonderbag for people living in the townships of Durban ( She found many of the residents spent up to a third of their income on fuel for cooking. They would either use paraffin or spend many hours gathering wood or dung.

These common fuel sources for cooking give off toxic fumes and are a health hazard if used for long periods. The Wonderbag means households spend less time inhaling fumes from a stove.

“The Wonderbag will always be a work in progress for me as I look to adapt the bag in line with my consumers’ feedback,” confirms Collins. “For example, we are now about to launch Wonderbag 2, which has an even more efficient insulator than polystyrene and is more readily available and easier to recycle following feedback earlier in the year.”

In South Africa, the bags sell for R170 (US $22) and there are discounts for the very poor. Collins estimates that a family of four could save US $80 a year if they used the Wonderbag two or three times a week.

Collins has used clever marketing strategies to get the Wonderbags out to the public, and 150,000 have been sold so far. One promotion gave away a Wonderbag with every purchase of boxes of curry powder.

Wonderbag has also partnered with local communities. Swartland Municipality ( purchased 5,000 Wonderbags and distributed them to 4,700 of “the most indigent and deserving households – the poorest of the poor.”

It is also running a promotion in the United Kingdom where, for every Wonderbag bought, one is given to a family in the developing world.

The popularity and success of the Wonderbag prompted the multinational food company, Unilever – one of the world’s leading suppliers of fast-moving consumer goods – to purchase 5 million bags for distribution. According to the Wonderbag website, this could lead to savings of US $1.35 billion on fuel for the users.

“The partnership has also enabled us to scale up and test the Wonderbag in different markets,” explains Collins.

Wonderbag hope to expand to 12 or 15 developing countries in Africa in 2012.

The company says it plans to target developing countries with high poverty, fuel supply shortages, high incidence of health problems from air pollution, and high incidence of injuries from fuel fires.

And for Wonderbag’s success so far, Collins has this advice: “Immerse yourself in your product and the way of life of your consumers. Understand it and them inside out so you can be your best advert. Word of mouth is by far the best form of advertising and the truth out of your own mouth is a great start.”


1) Haybox: Haybox is another variation on the concept of heat retention for efficient cooking. Website:

2) How to build a clay oven. Website:

3) Solar ovens and cookers are another way to cut costs when making meals.This website has many designs and plans on how to build a solar cooker. Website:

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