Husband-and-wife team Moses and Jeanette Tinfayo own and operate Nfayo Products, a retail business whose flagship product is the Wonder Bag. At home, Jeanette sews the Wonder Bag, an insulated cloth sack that can turn half-cooked meat and vegetables into a fully cooked meal, no extra energy needed.

Moses and Jeanette both work on the ground to sell the Wonder Bag in the townships and informal settlements of Cape Town, South Africa, where it lessens the burden of energy poverty.

“We have to run this business, or we won’t survive.” Jeanette says it with nonchalance, as if nothing could be more normal.

They are examples of survival entrepreneurs—people living in poverty who start their own businesses not necessarily because they want to but because there is no other source of sustainable, survivable income to be found. In South Africa, where the unemployment rate hovers around 25% and wealth inequality is the highest in the world, this economic phenomenon is not uncommon.

But Moses and Jeanette, recognizing the precariousness of their position, have been strategizing toward a better life for quite some time. They have now both studied business, Jeanette at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology and Moses at the Tertiary School in Business Administration (TSiBA), a university that teaches leadership and entrepreneurship to disadvantaged students from the townships.

This is a remarkable achievement, considering Moses’ background. Born in Rwanda, he was separated from his family during the genocide, managed to make his way to Cape Town, and lived on the streets of the city for some time. He was finally able to connect with his uncle and find enough stability to be accepted to TSiBA, but when the uncle suddenly left town Moses was put back on the streets. It was only after these turbulent years that he and Jeanette were able to settle down enough and start Nfayo Products.

Now, they have returned to TSiBA for a business consulting program hosted by TSiBA and Northeastern University, an experiential learning institution in Boston, Massachusetts. In the program, students from TSiBA and Northeastern join forces and spend a whirlwind two weeks as business consultants for a township entrepreneur. 

Moses and Jeanette are working with TSiBA’s Monwabisi Nkepu and Thembisa Qhawula and Northeastern’s Andrea Garcia and Leah Bury in hopes that fresh eyes might be able to ferret out hidden costs, discover new market opportunities, and bring a fresh strategic perspective to Nfayo Products. 

 Both sides benefit, though—Moses and Jeanette are just as eager to share their own entrepreneurial wisdom with the students, who will doubtless carry those intangible but invaluable lessons forward into their careers.

 “The new ideas flourish,” says Moses.

Alongside these practical lessons, students learn the science of poverty alleviation. They familiarize themselves with cutting-edge poverty measurement tools like the Social Progress Index; they critique and evaluate social business models and policy programs; they pinpoint where randomized control trials and empirical inquiry paint a more accurate picture of poverty alleviation than theory and rhetoric.

But Nfayo Products is not your average in-class case study, not the stereotypical venture of a survival entrepreneur.

It is distinctly contemporary; the company receives most orders through social media and is able to ship products to township customers within days. Each transaction deepens social impact as the Wonder Bag decreases the energy costs of poor households. Moses networks internationally and even researches the local availability of more biodegradable fabrics.

The couple also constantly iterates the Wonder Bag’s design to suit customers’ needs. “Some people want the Wonder Bag to match the colors of their kitchens. We design it for them so that no one even knows there is food inside, and they can surprise their friends with a meal.”

Nfayo Products is a retail business and a survival venture—both categories are common in developing countries—but it is also a human-centered, value-adding manufacturer that measures success on a triple bottom line.

Maybe Nfayo Products is just an outlier, but if so, it emphasizes the nuanced nature of global poverty even more strongly. Many of the poor are hungry or sick, but not all are, and not all for the same reasons. Some of the poor may even be unmotivated, but absolutely not all are, and many are able to innovate their way to a more manageable, predictable life.

Most of the poor are without a steady income, but not all are, and here is where TSiBA and Northeastern have intervened in with an idea: if sustainable, scalable, community-led social businesses are to be successfully built, the poor must be understood widely as a population, but also deeply as individuals.

Although science and big data allow them to be compacted into policy-shaping statistical averages—granted, insightful ones—the poor are diverse people, they have diverse dreams, and they often have precise plans for how to realize those dreams.

While they have been developing Nfayo Products, Moses and Jeanette have also managed to start a family. They have two daughters; Precious is six and Miriam is just four months old. The children are doing well, but there is no denying that work-life boundaries are blurry in the Tinfayo household.

Precious’ bed, adorned with a pink blanket and a teddy bear, is tucked behind a couch in a room that also functions as a workshop, a living room, and the consultants’ conference room. Miriam’s coos are the backdrop to conversations about Wonder Bag pricing and marketing.

But Jeanette is planning future growth around the family. “My daughter always says, ‘Guys, is this a house or is this a factory?’ I can see she is not happy with it. I would prefer to buy a shipping container so that the kids don’t always have to be around the business.”

Right now, Nfayo Products is generating around $5,000 per year in revenue. The business also earns some income from another product, the Wonder Chair, a cushioned stretcher with handles that can be used to comfortably transport wheelchair-bound people.

Moses and Jeanette are aware of the Wonder Chair’s social impact as well, and they have even written instructions for proper heavy lifting so that the product will not injure caretakers.

The future of both products and the business is bright, now that the TSiBA Ignition Centre and the Northeastern University Social Enterprise Institute have awarded Nfayo Products a 20,000 Rand (US$1,600) loan for business expansion. With this capital, Nfayo Products should soon be able to invest in that shipping container after all, opening the door for a higher volume of sales and a smoother cash flow.

In the meantime, Moses and Jeanette are happy to be using their business to benefit the townships. “We want other people to profit from this business,” says Jeanette. Moses agrees. “We want to create jobs in the community.”

And in the end, they will always share the characteristic persistence of entrepreneurs, especially survival entrepreneurs. “We can’t just give up. We need to do this right.”