“The moment I was surfing in a sea of plastics 100 metres out from the beach, I realised the chances of my kids enjoying the gifts of nature would be very slim. I want to pass on to future generations a better world,” says Ronald Akili, CEO of Potato Head Family, in an interview with Chris Hanrahan.
“As a surfer, I feel terrible when I head out and find myself surrounded by ocean plastics any time of year,” says Ronald Akili. “My resolve to ensure Potato Head does minimal damage to the environment is only strengthened by this. I want to pass on to future generations a better world – something that I think is innate in all of us.”
The young entrepreneur behind Potato Head Beach Club in Bali and Potato Head eateries in Jakarta, Singapore and Hong Kong, has embarked on an extraordinary sustainable initiative in Seminyak. Akili describes Desa Potato Head as an “experiential playground [that] combines good times with doing good in the world”.
He goes on: “Potato Head Family has always been sustainably driven – from the careful construction of our venues to the ingredients in our kitchens, or from our emblematic art installations made of rubbish to the ways we help preserve the island’s historic handicrafts. But these are trying times for our dear friend, the environment, so now we’re taking it to the next level across our entire flagship property with Desa Potato Head.
“In Bali, desa means village, but at Potato Head it means so much more. We consider our desa a multi-disciplinary hub of the future. It’s an experiential playground for guests to become engaged and inspired, whether that’s dancing till dawn or learning how to upcycle plastics into products. We see Desa Potato Head as a place where ideas can be shared and spread, as a way to incite change both at home and abroad.”
What got Akili (whose father Rudy founded Smailing Tour and is an eminent art collector) interested in sustainability? “We saw that there was a need for a significant shift in the way businesses conduct themselves, both in terms of environment and community,” he replies. “So around four years ago we set out to make those changes, with great respect to the fact it’s a pretty urgent need. We sought to set new industry standards and infuse our love of creativity and design into sustainability to show others that, to truly inspire, we must reinvent ourselves and what we bring to our customers.”
He could simply focus on running a successful business. Why go to the trouble and expense of making sustainability part of his operations? “I have four young children and, selfishly, I want to preserve the gifts of our mother earth for them and their generation,” Akili says. “I’m an ocean lover and the moment I was surfing in a sea of plastics 100 metres out from the beach, I realised the chances of my kids enjoying the gifts of nature would be very slim.
“I started thinking about how I could utilise my business to create a bigger impact. We are not fulfilling the role of scientists, activists or engineers to try to solve this natural disaster, but we have realised we can be a great connector. We can gather these solutions and with creativity represent it in ways that are relevant to our market. We connect with 10,000 people through guests, communities and other stakeholders on a daily basis – that’s more than 3 million people annually! We can create mini ripples in our communicators and hope to one day inspire others to do the same.”
Potato Head says it has become the first Indonesian hospitality company to be independently verified as carbon neutral. How did Akili feel when he find out about this achievement?
“I am very proud of this accomplishment,” he declares. “As one big family we are able to stick together and commit to a better future. My team made this happen, not me. We’re far from perfect and we don’t have all of the answers, but we’re very happy to share all that we’ve learned about sustainability and we’re committed to making step-by-step improvements. For us, it’s more about the path and philosophy than the destination. We will keep evolving to achieve greater levels of sustainability and continue to innovate and share those ideas with the world.”
His customers, Akili says, appreciate Potato Head’s focus on sustainability. “We’ve found that our sustainability initiatives offer a more enriched experience. Our biggest concern is single-use plastics, which we banned across Desa Potato Head earlier last year. Now the government has put a ban on them island-wide, which we’re really excited about.
“Our ancestors used organic materials, like banana leaves as packaging, so Bali wasn’t prepared for the current situation. But, ironically, we feel like tourism can be a vehicle that helps solve it. We showcase art installations made from waste around the Desa. We have Sustainism Lab, an R&D workshop that guests can visit to see how we turn plastics and other waste into new materials, and we’ve gone beyond using bamboo or glass straws in all our F&B venues and built an entire restaurant (Ijen) out of recycled materials.
“These are just a few of the ways we’re showing guests that there are solutions to this crisis, in the hope that it will inspire them to take make changes back home. For example, Ijen follows a zero waste philosophy. Here, we have created different solutions reducing the waste to almost zero. From dehydrating fish scales and turning them into crackers to asking our suppliers to deliver goods wrapped in banana leaves, we’ll continue to refine our process and find solutions for what gets left behind after a meal.”
In another initiative, Potato Head Family is providing scholarships to John Hardy’s Green School in Bali. “We currently sponsor four young Indonesian students to attend the Green School through their graduation,” Akili says. “We also are the main sponsor of their Bio Bus programme, which converts used cooking oil into biofuel for their vans. We’ve formed a strong relationship with the Green School because they embody a critical aspect of the sustainability challenge: education and awareness. They create future change makers, young members of our local community that understand, embrace and seek to make the changes needed for future generations.
Another exciting project, Future Design Week, was held in Bali in May. Akili invited Virgil Abloh, fashion designer, entrepreneur and DJ, and Alex Olson, skateboarder, company owner and entrepreneur, to support the event. “One of Potato Head’s greatest passions is design, but we know our planet faces a difficult future if there aren’t major shifts in the products we make, the amount we consume, and the ways we treat waste,” Akili says of this project. “A lot of people believe that sustainable design may be inferior or they think they have to sacrifice on aesthetics, but we know the opposite to be true. A beautiful yet sustainable lifestyle is attainable, and Future Design Week will demonstrate that through exhibitions and installations which showcase new materials – upcycled, grown in a lab or other – as well as natural materials and approaches that greatly reduce our environmental footprint.
“Virgil and Alex are two people we admire very much from a cultural standpoint. Virgil has been increasingly working within the realm of sustainability and Alex is a very consciously minded individual. To have them both DJing at Future Design Week seemed the perfect combination, and we know that in addition to providing a night of music and good times, their presence will draw attention to the pressing issue we’re facing not just in Bali, but on a global scale.”
From December to March each year Bali’s beaches are swamped with plastics and other garbage, and sometimes even have to be closed to the public. Are there ever times when Akili feels despair? “I don’t,” he answers. “I’m encouraged by the changes I see happening now in our community with single-use plastics, and will push to see more goals are achieved with urgency.
“The ban on single-use plastics in Bali is a good start and I congratulate the Governor for the great step of curbing single-use plastics we know to be entirely unnecessary, like straws and bags. What’s needed now is a cultural shift to entirely change the way we think about all single-use materials and a return to reusable and organic.
“There are so many young Indonesian and foreign entrepreneurs creating solutions now, and more than ever they need government support, commercial investors and the local community for those ideas to become reality. We believe in innovation, creativity and resolve and we will always remain committed to building a world that is better than the one we inherited.”