Ali Conn : Chief Innovation Officer for SA Harvest
Posted: 04 February 2022
Ali Conn’s unrelenting sense of adventure and determination has catapulted him around the world on a journey rich with experience and discovery. His insatiable desire to make a difference and “disrupt” established patterns of behaviour has made him a founding member of SA Harvest; a non-profit organisation committed to rescuing and redistributing surplus food that would have otherwise ended up in landfills around South Africa. Ali, a Stanford Lake College alumnus (2007), attributes his sense of adventure, concern for the environment, and drive to make a difference in the lives of others to his time at Stanford Lake College.
He joined Stanford Lake as a boarder in Grade 10. The social and political unrest in Zimbabwe (where he was living) caused Ali’s parents look for education opportunities in South Africa. Stanford Lake College – located in the Magoebaskloof area of the Limpopo Province of South Africa and close to the Zimbabwe border- became his home for the next three years. For Ali, the contrast in pedagogy and student life between his previous school and Stanford Lake was dramatic. It was a transition from an education focused heavily of compliance and academic success to one that embraced critical thinking, engagement, agency, and student voice.
Ali shares what life was like for him at his old school: “I never really excelled. I always felt under pressure. I was a scrawny little kid. I really wanted to better myself and I didn’t ever find any opportunity to do that there. I was bullied a lot and as such I tried to avoid all types of sports.”
Ali remembers the freedom he experienced when he first joined the “Dream and Do” programme at his new school, Stanford Lake College. D.A.D. was an activity-based class that was scheduled each day. The first sessions were on the lake by the school, where students learned to kayak and abseil. Later they would go out mountain biking. Conditioned by his previous teacher-centred, classroom-based experiences of education, Ali was shocked. “It blew my mind! How would you allow kids to go and swim in the lake? Shouldn’t they be doing maths or something? But the school was like, “No! Go be adventurous and explore the world around you!””
It was during the next three years at Stanford Lake College that Ali believes he underwent his greatest transformation. He began seizing opportunities, playing sports, engaging in class, and was finally excited by school. His passion for the environment grew, as did his understanding of his potential, his impact, and his responsibility. His teachers pushed him to question, to challenge and to engage.
“I wasn’t marvellous in academics. I wasn’t fantastic in sports, but I was able to grow and find confidence in myself and my abilities. I had zero confidence when I first arrived at Stanford. But the experiences there instilled in me a kind of trust in myself, to just explore and not really settle. A lot of teachers taught us to never settle. To not conform, to not resign yourself to things.”
Before going to university, Ali’s gap years were spent working on superyachts around the world and at dive centres in Thailand, but there was still something missing. An undergraduate degree in Psychology at Rhodes University was followed by an exciting journey into the film industry where he worked as a Production Manager and Director in Qatar, the UK, and South Africa. In the UK his creativity found an outlet in the technical side of film, and he found himself working on a variety of reality TV shows and concerts including, the Rolling Stones’ 50th anniversary tour titled “Sweet Summer Sun” and “X Factor UK. He also worked on “The Stephen Lawrence Concert” where he met Ed Sheeran and Ellie Goulding; he worked with both performers in later concerts and shows.
Ali was particularly moved by the energy he felt as accomplished UK performers came together to create a concert to remember the 20-year anniversary of Stephen Lawrence’s death; an 18-year-old who was murdered in a racist attack in Southeast London. “This was a commemorative concert in respect of him, raising awareness against racism and hate crimes. I just thought, “this is me”.”
Connecting with the cause is important to Ali so when the opportunity to work as a Production Manager with a company which produced shows for the likes of Animal Planet and National Geographic arose, he felt intimidated, but it felt right. Nervous about the magnitude of the projects, he remembered a Richard Branson quote about failure that his father had told him. “If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later!” He took the job.
Ali firmly believes that this approach to failure, and the mindset he developed at school, were vital as he grabbed hold of new opportunities with both hands.
“Round Square taught me never to give up and never to take “no” as an answer. I would never have had the confidence to do anything if that wasn’t instilled in me at school level. I left school with this mindset where it’s ok to fail before you succeed; I mean, you have to fail! It’s growth. It’s like with any muscle, consistency leads to growth and you have to grow to really live.”
Immersed in nature, working on documentaries, and living in Qatar was incredible for Ali. An experience he’ll forever be grateful for. His success was because of his tenacity, humility, and ability to connect and collaborate with others in a team.
“It was such an amazing experience. I spent three years in Qatar and loved it! I learned so much. It was clear I was thrown in at the deep end, but I soon found my feet with the help of my team. After three years, I was able to call myself a Production Manager!”
Returning to South Africa was a shock. The unavoidable images of poverty that now surrounded him every day were “raw”. “Having been out of the country for 3 years, I again saw poverty in its extreme form, and it was overwhelming. It actually brought me to tears the first time I got back.” Thinking about what he could do to help, he recalled his experiences working in a restaurant. Huge amounts of edible food went to waste every day. He discovered that 20 million South Africans go to bed hungry and/or under- nourished and annually 10 million tons of food goes to waste. The idea of intercepting food before it reached the landfills, and using it to feed people who needed it, began to take shape. Ali set up his own food waste-to-plate company, and later he was invited to help establish SA Harvest – South Africa’s fastest growing non-profit, food organisation.
Ali’s work at SA Harvest is his passion. The company values match his own and he is making a measurable difference in the lives of others using the skills he has developed. Since the start of 2020, the team has “rescued” 4.5 million kilos of food from going to waste and used it to deliver the equivalent of 15 million meals to vulnerable communities around South Africa.
“We are proving that food waste is ridiculous. Why are we wasting all this land to grow food that isn’t eaten? We’ve got 20 million South Africans who are food insecure. It just doesn’t make sense, particularly from an environmental perspective. When food reaches landfill it releases methane, which is 80 times more harmful to the atmosphere than C02. Food waste does not make sense. Poverty does not make sense. So, let’s fix it!”
Ali has thrived on challenges; he has not accepted the easy path and has constantly questioned his purpose and potential for impact. His questioning has led him to action as he draws on the values from school and skills developed from engaging in the unknown. For Ali, his can-do attitude spills into all that he does. His work at SA Harvest is passionate and committed, but perhaps this is not his last adventure. “I’m excited with where I have ended up”, he shares. Though after a brief pause, he adds, “but there’s still a lot more excitement to come as we work to build a better future, for us all! As my dad’s always said, we each have a responsibility to do our bit, because if we don’t do it, who will?”