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energy reduction

wonderbag_mainWe’ve never run an article verbatim from another site before, but yesterday I stumbled upon this one while I was searching for something else and the story moved me. It’s about a product that was conceived of during a blackout. It doesn’t just solve a problem. It changes people’s lives. Here’s the article, with some further comments by me at the end:

Sarah Collins couldn’t sleep. It was 2008, and rolling blackouts had darkened the city of Johannesburg. There were severe, ongoing energy shortages throughout South Africa, and everyone was affected. Cities and towns, hospitals and schools — all had power only once every several days, and then only for a few hours. It was during one of these blackouts that Sarah leapt out of bed at two in the morning and woke up her roommate. “I’ve got it!” she said. “I know how I’m going to change the world.”

Sarah had devoted her entire life to searching for ways to empower people in rural Africa, especially women. She worked in AIDS orphans clinics. She did environmental conservation work. She started community-based businesses to help rural women generate an income. She even created a political party and ran for government.

But the night of the blackout, Sarah flashed back to her childhood. Growing up on a farm in a remote part of the country, she had watched her grandmother bundle blankets and cushions around a hot pot of stew to keep it cooking and conserve her limited fuel. “Why wouldn’t that work?” she thought. Then she remembered watching the San people bury food in the ground while they were cooking. “I thought to myself, ‘This is the oldest technology in the world.’”

The next day, Sarah created the prototype for her heat-retention cooker, the Wonderbag. After food is brought to a boil, the pot is placed in the heavily-lined bag where it slow-cooks for up to 12 hours. “Finding firewood for cooking takes a huge amount of rural women’s time,” explains Sarah, “and gathering it is very dangerous. The wood fires used to cook then cause indoor pollution, a leading cause of death worldwide in children under five. Having the Wonderbag would empower the women to feed their families, generate an income, and save them time.”

“Right away I knew it would work,” says Sarah, “I just knew it. I called my brother and said, ‘I’ve found it! I’ve found my life, I’ve found my destiny, I found the way I can help make a difference.’ And I described the idea, and he joked, ‘Sarah, for years the family has been looking for an excuse to have you institutionalized, and I think I just found it.’”

Sarah brought her first bag to a grandmother she knew who cared for nine orphans. The woman earned a meager living selling food that she cooked all day over a wood fire, but still struggled to meet her family’s basic needs. The tarpaulin where they lived was always full of smoke. The kids weren’t in school, because they had to spend their days gathering firewood. “I said to her, ‘I’ll live with you while we see whether this works.’ But she got the idea right away,” says Sarah. “Their lives were completely changed. Within three months, the children only needed to gather firewood once a week, and they were all in school. They had money for shoes. It was a catalyst out of poverty for them.”

Five years later, Sarah has sold or donated more than 700,000 Wonderbags throughout Africa.

The Wonderbag is now available in the U.S., through Amazon, and Sarah’s new goal is to sell one million to people worldwide. For every bag sold, one is donated to a family in need. “I chose Amazon because I loved the idea of combining the oldest technology in the world with the most high-tech, efficient, environmentally-friendly way of doing your shopping,” says Sarah.

“Having the Wonderbag on Amazon brings healthy, wholesome, slow-cooked portable food into mainstream kitchens. Just as important,” says Sarah, “it empowers consumers, by giving them innovative ways to be part of the solutions that the world is looking for.”

Phil’s Comments

  •  This is a prepper story. I wasn’t aware of the rolling blackout problems that this story talks about, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they occurred in America eventually. As flaky as our crumbling infrastructure is, the most vulnerable element seems to be our aging power grid. Prepping is about more than just storing beans, bullets, and band-aids for a potential future emergency. It’s also about making changes to our lifestyle now, before anything happens, to better train and equip ourselves to deal with hardship when it comes. One huge aspect of that lifestyle change is learning to make do with less. The less you use, the less you need. The slogan “Reduce – Reuse – Recycle” is beginning to resonate with me. A great place to start is to find ways in which you can meet your needs while using less energy. Sarah found a way to use less fuel energy by cooking in a Wonderbag.
  • The Wonderbag isn’t a new idea. Sarah plainly says as much in the article. She watched her grandmother bundle blankets and cushions around a hot pot of stew to keep it cooking. She got this brainstorm for  a new product that was actually a very old idea. “Old school” techniques and technology rock, especially in a prepper situation. Keep your eyes peeled for information on how people got by in the pioneer days or during the Great Depression. It might be helpful someday. And look for ways to update some of these old ways. You might be able to put a new spin on an old technology and have a life-changing impact on many people like Sarah did.
  • Because this is “the oldest technology in the world” and Sarah’s grandmother was able to accomplish the same thing with blankets and cushions, you don’t have to buy a Wonderbag to cook your meals. Use your own blankets, or dig a hole in the ground and put your pot in it. Sarah’s new-fangled Wonderbag may work better than those approaches, or it may not. I don’t know. Clearly, more research is called for. (Perhaps I should apply for a government grant.) The answer to your problem isn’t always to spend more money or to buy a new product. Sometimes you just need to use what God has already put in your hand in a new and different way.
  • At the a selling price of $56.57 (as of the time of this writing), the Wonderbag is over-priced. Intentionally. For every one you buy, they give one to a needy person or family in Africa. You can’t buy one for a lower price and not have one go to Africa. They don’t give you that option. If that bugs you, you can always try making your own or try the digging-a-hole-in-your-backyard approach. If their forced philanthropy appeals to you (as I’m certain it does to many), you can buy two Wonderbags. Keep one for yourself and give the second one to the person of your choice. (I strongly believe that prepping is about sharing, but I very strongly believe that I should be the one who gets to decide who I share my stuff with.) And you can feel good about blessing two families in Africa.
  • If the Wonderbag works as well as the reviews suggest (out of 237 customer reviews on Amazon, 166 of them are 5-stars), it’s selling price of $56.57 is a bargain. When I read the article, my mind instantly went to a group of  contemporary products that do the same thing. They’re called thermal cookers, and they use the exact same principle — bring your food to a simmer and then transfer it to a thermal-retention unit. It continues to slow-cook on residual heat for hours. The one I’ve seen the most positive comments about on other prepper sites is Saratoga Jack’s thermal cooker. People rave about it, but at $110 plus $13.50 in shipping it makes the Wonderbag look like a bargain. And Saratoga Jack’s isn’t the most expensive such product by a long shot. Zojirushi (whose products I hold in high regard) sells one for $194.65, which makes the highly-rated Wonderbag looking down-right cheap by comparison.

The bottom line is that necessity is the mother of invention. Plato said that, a very long time ago, and it still holds true today. Whether you buy a Wonderbag or try to cook stew in your sleeping bag, we need to get creative about using less and making due with what we have. It will save money in the short-run, which could enable you to buy more stuff that you need in the long-run.