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More power to the chef

Autumn is a time for slow cooking: soups and stews and curries, chillies and biryanis — Oh, and power cuts. Impromptu Earth Hours and candlelit dinners. Cue the Wonderbag, a funky-looking heat-retention cooker that promises to make the world a better place while helping disempowered chefs make wonderful meals, whatever the weather.

The Wonderbag is a modern iteration of traditional heat-retention cookers (originally, hay would have been used; today recycled polystyrene provides the insulation).

It works as follows: a pot of food is brought to the boil on a conventional stove top and allowed to cook for a few minutes. The pot is then transferred to the bag and sealed; the insulation in the bag maintains the temperature and allows the food to continue cooking without power. Once the ‘cooking time” has lapsed, the food is ready to be served.

It’s not a new idea. ‘Heat-retention cooking has been around for ­hundreds of years. I didn’t invent it; we just redesigned it, made it more efficient,” says Sarah Collins of Natural Balance, which produces the Wonderbags. So effective is the bag that the company recently won the 2011 Climate Change Leadership ‘Climate Hero” award.

It has also won over scores of local foodies with its powerful performance. ‘I will never make chilli or a bolognaise sauce on top of the stove again,” wrote food blogger, journalist and author Jane-Anne Hobbs on her website, scrumptious.co.za, after preparing a perfect slow-cooked chilli beef. Hobbs says she was amazed by how the Wonderbag kept her pot hot and that she still had to use oven gloves to handle the cookware six hours after placing it inside the bag.

Rural empowerment

The product’s business model is also worth a mention. The Wonderbag, which is made by hand by members of a rural empowerment project, is being registered by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change as a clean development mechanism project — the first African project of its kind to be registered as such.

‘What this means,” Collins says, ‘is that we are able to sell carbon credits in the developed world to finance green projects in the developing world. We use funding from carbon credits to refinance the bag.”

Collins says the target is to have two million Wonderbags in households by the end of next year. ­Ecoconscious suburban shoppers and cooks are only part of the bag’s market, the other being rural households across Africa. ‘My background is in social development,” Collins says. ‘It’s been a huge surprise how the Wonderbag has appealed to ­people across the board, how it’s become trendy.”

In response to growing demand Collins has developed additional sizes: a baby bag, which can be used for smaller portions or to keep lunches hot (Collins says a number of factories have sponsored bags for their workers) and a big bag that can be used for catering purposes. ‘The big bag is perfect for soup kitchens and feeding schemes,” Collins says. ‘It saves them so much money.”

For more information about the Wonderbag go to: www.naturalbalancesa.com

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Nechama Brodie
Dr Nechama Brodie has worked as a multi-media journalist, editor, producer and publisher for nearly twenty-five years. During this time she has dodged the secret police in Burma, explored tunnels underneath Johannesburg, gotten dusty at rock festivals, and reported on the myth of ‘white genocide’ in South Africa.

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