Maverick Citizen

Food Justice

FOOD JUSTICE

Every night in SA, 20 million go hungry – Ali Conn and SA Harvest are working on a solution

Every night in SA, 20 million go hungry – Ali Conn and SA Harvest are working on a solution
Ali Conn, the chief innovation officer of SA Harvest, has been recognised as one of Africa's 100 brightest young minds for his exceptional contribution to SA Harvest, which is dedicated to improving food security and nutrition in South Africa through a unique model of food rescue and systemic intervention. (Photo: SA Harvest)

The chief innovation officer for SA Harvest, Ali Conn, hopes there will come a time when there will be no need for an organisation such as this. The non-profit organisation, which was founded by Alan Browde, rescues food that would otherwise go to waste, repurposing it to feed people in need. Maverick Citizen spoke to Conn about that work and his recent award.

‘SA Harvest is not a charity in the sense that we are here to do something good… we really are looking to change things at a systemic level to implement real change in the way food supply works in South Africa,” said Ali Conn, chief innovation officer for SA Harvest.

The organisation was launched to tackle hunger, by rescuing food and delivering it to those who need it most.

The injustice of hunger

An estimated 20 million people go to bed hungry every night in South Africa. Experts have indicated that hunger isn’t just something transient; it has serious long-term physical and psychological consequences which have implications for the health of society itself.

“At an early age, hunger lends itself to stunted growth and learning disabilities. At a school level, kids can’t think when hungry and they go to school and they don’t have adequate nutrition. At an older age, it can lead to alcoholism, gender-based violence and theft,” said Conn.

It doesn’t have to be like this, as South Africa produces more than enough food to feed its population – yet a dysfunctional food system contributes to high levels of food insecurity, added Conn.

A broken system

During apartheid, the food system was tightly regulated because of sanctions, said Conn.

“What farmers could buy their seeds for was regulated… what farmers sold their produce to retailers for was regulated. What retailers sold their produce to consumers for was regulated – it was all regulated,” he said.

Following the demise of apartheid, the government opted to deregulate the food space and open it up to the free market, says Conn. However, a clause in the Constitution means the government cannot intervene in the food chain.

“It was done with good intentions, but the results of this libertarian approach meant that the powerful ones in the food chain, such as the retailers, got more and more powerful and there is a tremendous downward pressure on farmers’ selling prices now,” he explained.

The farming sector is one of the most neglected in the country. Many farm workers are provided with sub-standard housing and are paid poor wages. For this, the farmers are blamed.

“Everyone points to them and questions why they aren’t paying these guys correctly… the thing is, the farmers can’t pay these guys properly because the farmers themselves are struggling as they are being played off each other by the major retailers,” he said.

Intercepting food before it reaches the landfill

In the northern hemisphere, the majority of food waste comes from the consumer and household sectors, while in South Africa, only 5% of food waste comes from the consumer level.

A significant amount of food waste in South Africa is generated in the farming and retail sector, which is where SA Harvest steps in. The non-profit organisation, with a presence in six provinces, collects food that otherwise would have been sent to the landfills. The food is collected from farmers, manufacturers, retailers and anyone else in the food chain who has excess nutritious food to donate.

Utilising refrigerated vehicles, SA Harvest distributes nutritionally balanced produce to the beneficiaries who create the meals. “We maintain the cold chain throughout… if we get a call from a farmer, we don’t charge them anything, we just go and collect their excess citrus,” he explained.

The vetting processes

The rescued food is then distributed to beneficiaries who have undergone a vetting process. This includes filling out a preliminary form that indicates who they feed, where they are based, how many people they feed, how many meals per day and what type of food the community typically eats.

“We don’t want to come in and prescribe mushrooms and say you must eat that because it’s good for you… maybe it’s not part of your diet, and you need to respect that… there’s a lot of dignity that needs to go into the space,” he said.

The form also makes it possible to establish if the beneficiary is receiving assistance from other organisations.

“We don’t want to overlap… the need is huge around the country, so we try to reduce overlap wherever possible.”

SA Harvest currently provides food to more than a hundred organisations weekly.

“We prioritise child-headed households, children’s orphanages and the elderly. Obviously, we don’t exclude anyone, but those are the priorities,” he explained.

“It’s quite an intensive exercise because there is so much need in the country and you never know which farmers may call… you never know how much of a particular food item you might be collecting daily,” he added.

Leveraging the technology

At the inception of SA Harvest, Conn soon realised there was a frequent overlap between organisations when it came to distributing food to vulnerable communities.

Some beneficiaries would receive food donations from multiple organisations, while others were unintentionally excluded. He mentions the example of an organisation in Masiphumelele, Cape Town, receiving food donations, but around the corner, an early childhood development centre was in dire need of help, yet no one knew about it.

To reduce this overlap and make sense of the food space, SA Harvest has developed an in-house programme enabling it to catalogue donations.

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“We can track literally every morsel of food that we are donating… we can track quantities, what the item is, where it came from and where it goes,” he said.

Donors are also able to see where their donation is going.

“It just brings it full circle, because people understand that the food is feeding families… it’s feeding children, it’s feeding grandparents, it’s feeding the most vulnerable in the country and it’s making a huge difference,” he said.

To date, more than 38 million meals have been cooked from the rescued produce. 

The importance of rescuing food

More than 10 million tonnes of food in South Africa goes to waste annually.

“Roughly, if you take a 350g single serving meal, it’s about 30 billion meals that get thrown away annually, which is just mind-blowing when you also consider that a third of the population is food insecure,” said Conn.

Food waste has a costly effect.

“The input costs of the agricultural sector to grow the food that is discarded are estimated to be around R67-billion,” he said. There are also devastating environmental costs. Many corporations and farmers do not have the resources, capability or time to dispose of food waste responsibly, and so opt to use landfills.

“Food waste emits methane gas from landfills which has huge climatic consequences. It’s estimated to be 20 to 80 times more harmful as a greenhouse gas than CO2,” he explained.

SA Harvest has rescued over 11 million kilograms of food which would have likely ended up in a landfill.

“While we feed hundreds weekly, we’ve also got hundreds backlogged, because we can only send out as many meals as we can rescue,” he said.

Prestigious accolades

Conn was recently named one of Africa’s 100 Brightest Young Minds, in an initiative endorsed and supported by the African contingent of the UN Word Food Programme.

“I am so humbled about it [the award] because it gives credibility to what we are doing and it is so worthwhile,” he said.

Conn said he hoped the award was seen as an SA Harvest award, as they deserve the recognition, being behind all the work and effort.

Doing your part

While a significant amount of food waste occurs in the farming and retail sectors, that does not mean ordinary consumers can’t help the cause.

Households looking after the food which is in their fridge and making sure it doesn’t go off, is not the overriding solution, said Conn.

“They need to pay attention and lend their voices, lend their support, and even donate if they can,” he said.

Rallying around an organisation such as SA Harvest can strengthen their advocacy, he added.

“We as SA Harvest can’t feed everyone, but the country can feed itself, and we can do that very quickly if we just start focusing on the issues at hand, and the root causes of the problem.” DM/MC

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Nic Tsangarakis says:

    Amazing work SA Harvest. Well deserved award. So much good in the country, and thanks DM for surfacing some of it.

  • Rona van Niekerk says:

    Another wonderful positive story. Thank you for making it known to us DM, and thank you SA Harvest for all the good work you are doing.

  • Sam van Coller says:

    Brilliant. Another fine example of excellence in South Africa. How do they fund their running costs? Does money limit its expansion?

  • Sharon S says:

    Great initiative – Sustainable – a great approach that takes one problem ( food waste ) and uses it to help solve another ( food security ) . Will check out your website to see where SA Harvest is based. As I am also involved with a NGO ( in JHB – Fourways area ) that does the same thing ( on a lesser scale we lack the funding for the refrigeration vehicles and need a larger more suitable premise for meal development, however our biggest challenge is collection and distributing fast enough – our donors ( a Supermarket retailer ) uses us more as a garbage bag rather than providing fresh food items . Congrats on receiving well earned recognition, congrats on the positive impact you are providing ! would be great to connect soon and learn more

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