Reflections from South Africa II: Walking in the footsteps of Nelson Mandela, fighting hunger and food waste

For a lumbering, gentle giant, Alan Browde is a man in a hurry with one mission in life: to end hunger in South Africa. Before we even begin the interview, he launches straight in, telling me that he doesn’t have a lot of time to chat, as ten million people go hungry in South Africa each day and he has work to do. Of those, more than two million are children who go to bed hungry every night.

Alan is the founder and CEO of SA Harvest, a game-changing charity dedicated to tackling food inequality and ending food poverty in South Africa. I’ve known Alan for many years, and he’s always had the skills of persuasion. I met him when I was 16, when he was a leader in a youth movement in South Africa. He came to my house to persuade my parents to allow me to go on a year-long leadership programme based overseas. My parents had been vehemently against the idea, but within thirty minutes of talking to Alan, he had changed their minds and they said yes! So I know that if anyone can galvanise politicians, influencers and the business community, it’s Alan.

Alan founded SA Harvest in 2016, after 25 years spent running his own marketing services company. His intuitive feel for brands coupled with his grasp of the art of persuasion made him exceptionally good at what he did, but he felt compelled to do something which gave back to his country.

Alan’s desire to support the people of South Africa comes as no surprise given his family background. His father Jules was at law school with Nelson Mandela, before becoming a highly respected advocate and Swaziland High Court Judge, and his mother, Selma, was also a well-known activist against the Apartheid government.

When Mandela was released from prison, one of his first ports of call was a visit to Alan’s father Jules at home. At this meeting, Mandela turned to Alan and told him that he thought that it was time for him to  give back to South Africa. Alan didn’t act on this advice for a number of years as he had five children to feed, but he kept coming back to Nelson Mandela’s message – and in 2016, the seeds were planted for SA Harvest to be born.

“Mandela turned to Alan and told him that he thought that it was time for him to  give back to South Africa.”

“I grew up in Johannesburg, next to someone called Ronni Khan, who is a big part of the SA Harvest story,” Alan told me when we caught up last week. Ronni moved to Australia, becoming the CEO and founder of OzHarvest, one of the leading food rescue operations in the world. Today, she is a household name in Australia, responsible for changing the national law and delivering more than 110 million meals to those who need it.

“I’d been speaking with Ronni about launching a South African branch of OzHarvest, and in 2016 I took the plunge. The first thing to do was go to Australia. I rescued food on their trucks, and sat in on their meetings to really get to grips with the operation, before returning to South Africa, selling my marketing services company, and launching SA Harvest.”

The company, Alan tells me, has a three-legged strategic structure, designed to tackle the immediate food security crisis and address the systemic causes of hunger.

The first ‘leg’ is food rescue. “Ten million tons of food go to landfill every year in South Africa, which is the equivalent of thirty billion meals,” says Alan. “We rescue food that would have gone to waste (more than half of which comes from manufacturers and farmer), bring it to our warehouses, and deliver it to vetted NGOs which feed hungry people in bulk for free.” By partnering with more than 200 NGOs across the country, SA Harvest has provided nearly forty million meals in the past three years.

SA Harvest partners with more than 200 vetted NGOs.

The second leg is systemic intervention: the organisation’s long-term mission is to end hunger in South Africa, not just feed those who need it. “To end hunger, we need to create independence from charity, by creating food sovereignty via entrepreneurial training. And this we are doing,” Alan tells me.

“To end hunger, we need to create independence from charity, by creating food sovereignty via entrepreneurial training.”

“We provide young people with entrepreneurial training, both practically in our own company, and through officially accredited business training schemes. This will become more important as time goes on – we want to send our entrepreneurs out into the workplace and help them become independent. We’re also aiming to make it illegal to waste food in the supply chain, and to get the government to fulfil section 27a of our Bill of Rights, which states that every South African is entitled to enough food.”

To support these two strategic legs, SA Harvest has created a bespoke tech platform, which makes up the third part of the organisation. Any business looking to become a serious player in the food rescue space has to invest in technology, to comply with South Africa’s strict food laws and regulations, and SA Harvest’s platform allows Alan and his team to track the food through its journey.

“We take the same risks as any other food vendor, the only difference is that we do it for free,” Alan explains. “Our platform allows the team to trace where the food has come from, its expiry date, when it got to the warehouse, what time it leaves for the NGOs, what time it arrives there and who signed for it.”

SA Harvest is part of a global network on food organisations, all fighting inequality and providing solutions to our devastating food waste problem. Collectives like SA Harvest, and FareShare and The Felix Project in the UK, are proof of what can be achieved when businesses, charities, and governments work together to create change.

In the past two weeks, I’ve been reflecting on South Africa and its development. Spar Sea Point, which I wrote about last week, services some of the wealthiest people in the country, and does it so very well. But whilst we celebrate the innovation and creativity on display in stores like Spar Sea Point, we must not forget how far the country still has to go. Unemployment in South Africa has just reached 46%, and the gap between the rich and poor is one of the starkest in the world.

Many South Africans are working tirelessly to make South Africa a fairer and better place for all. Alan Browde is one of these people, and a shining light, who has taken the baton and is following in the footsteps of Nelson Mandela, to try and make South Africa a true rainbow nation, filled with hope and a bright future for future generations.

Quickfire Questions

Tell me about your family?  My mom and dad were South African activists. My dad, Jules, was a lawyer who fought for justice and equality. He co-founded SA Lawyers for Human Rights and became well known as a brilliant litigator. My mom, Selma, who is 96 now, is an oncologist who fought tirelessly for justice and became a politician. She was in the provincial parliament, and was Helen Suzman’s running partner when Helen was the only opposition MP in the Nationalist government. I am married to Suzie and we have five children. I also have the amazing SA Harvest team, which is like my family too.

Who is your mentor? Although I only met Nelson Mandela that once at our family home in Johannesburg, he is my inspiration and role model.

What is your favourite book?  Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, a book about how individuals can endure and overcome suffering to become the best people they can be. And Awaken the Giant Within by Tony Robbins.

What do you want your legacy to be? It has to be to have helped end hunger in South Africa. | @TheMBSGroup