Established in 2009 to address widespread hunger in South Africa, FoodForward SA connects a world of excess to a world of need by recovering quality edible surplus food from the consumer goods supply chain and distributing it to community organisations that serve the poor. More than 80% of the food recovered is nutritious food. I had the pleasure of interviewing Andy Du Plessis, the inspiring Managing Director of FoodForward SA.
Tell me about yourself. What was your ‘career journey’ up to this point?
I started my career in the public health sector where I worked for the provincial Health Department for four years. My job was to look after organisations in the non-profit sector. The Health Department funded organisations involved in feeding and skills development. One of the organisations we supported was the Peninsula School Feeding Association. When a position became available there, they approached me and I worked there for fifteen years. I then moved to Food Forward SA and have been here for eight years.
How would you describe your current job in simple terms?
Our core business at FoodForward SA is the recovery of surplus food from the supply chain. My role is to make sure that happens throughout our national network. I oversee a senior management team that implements our strategies and KPIs (key performance indicators). I am also a liaison between our staff and our board.
What are the key issues you regularly deal with?
Stakeholder relations is a key issue – our food donors are the lifeblood of our organisation, as well as our financial donors. Another key issue is making sure we have the right footprint nationally and that we grow strategically. We have a large network of beneficiary organisations and we have to make sure that we know who we are supporting, how we are supporting them, and ensure that we reach vulnerable communities.
What is your favourite thing about your job?
A few things stand out for me. The first is that it is great to be part of an organisation that is solving two problems – one is the problem is food insecurity, but secondly, the huge environmental problem with thousands of tons of food going to waste, and ending up in landfills. If we can intercept that food at the right stage, while it is still useable and edible, we can save food from ending up in landfill sites and use that food to address the problem of food insecurity in our country.
My other favourite thing about my work is that we use food as an enabler and a catalyst for social change. We don’t just give food to feed people, we strategically give food to beneficiary organisations that focus on education, skills development, youth and women. In that way we strengthen communities – that really excites me about our work.
If you could have a superhero on your team, what would you want their special power to be?
We need someone with a glass ball that can look into the future! We are operating in challenging times, unpredictable times and there is a lot of uncertainty in our environment (politically, economically and socially) and if we could have better insights into the future, that would help!
Let’s now talk about FoodForward SA generally. What is FoodForward SA’s main focus areas at the moment? What are the main successes?
There is a huge amount of surplus food throughout the supply chain from farmers, to manufacturers, to wholesalers and to retailers. We work in all those sectors. We use our Warehouse Food Banking Model – where we recover surplus food from a farmer, a manufacturer’s plant, a retailer’s distribution centre – and we bring that food into our warehouses. We check it, store it, sort and redistribute it. This is a very cost-effective model. Our cost per meal is only 85 cents. Ninety-seven percent of what we are able to recover from the supply chain is considered nutritious food.
But let’s go back a bit to why there is so much surplus. Farmers, for example, often have very specific requirements to meet when supplying retailers – the produce has to be a certain size or colour, for example. Any food not meeting those requirements is surplus produce and, by joining our programme, the farmer can then donate that good food to us to feed people. This saves the farmer money as s/he doesn’t have to pay to dump it and there is no impact on the environment. On the manufacturing side, the surplus comes from over-ordering, over-production, incorrectly labelled goods, and problems during the manufacturing process. We can intercept those goods that are good for human consumption – well within expiry date (we don’t give any expired goods) and use this food to address food insecurity.
Another focus area at FoodForward SA which I am very proud of is FoodShare, our digital platform – our own technology that we developed five years ago – where we connect beneficiary organisations to retail stores for them to collect surplus food within a 5 km radius from a retail store. Our retail partners are Pick ‘n Pay, Woolworths and Food Lovers Market. We connect their stores digitally to beneficiary organisations within our network. The technology is just amazing as the costs to us are minimal, but we are exponentially increasing access to food in vulnerable communities. We have received both local and global recognition for our innovative foodbanking model, via the Impumelelo Community Chest Social Innovation Awards (2018) and Arrell Global Food Innovation Awards (2019).
I’ve already explained our Mobile Rural Depot Programme but just to add that we look at the 100 poorest municipalities in the country and see where we need to focus. Currently, we take food to 25 different rural communities across the country each month – our trucks sometimes travel for a full day to reach them!
We also have a TETA-accredited 6-month youth internship programme, covering supply chain operations and logistics. After the 6 months, we find the young people employment or employ them ourselves.
And one more growing programme area is our Household Food Security Programme. We work with the Department of Health who assesses children and pregnant and nursing mothers who are malnourished, and people suffering from chronic illnesses where food security is a problem. We make sure they get a food parcel to their home. We also have beneficiary organisations who employ social workers etc. and they refer clients that have had a home visit, and where food insecurity is a problem.
We employ a number of integrated food security strategies to make sure we reach the most vulnerable at a household level as well as through various service partners.
How do you take care of yourself, while working in such a challenging and demanding space?
It is a tough sector we operate in without a doubt. And on top of operating in a challenging non-profit sector, FoodForward SA also operates in the fast-moving consumer goods industry because that’s where we get the surplus food from.
So, how do I fill my tank? I find real joy and meaning in making sure that we are providing food to the most vulnerable. For example, I am extremely proud of our Mobile Rural Depot Programme where we select the most vulnerable rural communities and we make sure that we get food to them every single month so rural communities are strengthened. A huge part of our population between 0 and 5 suffer from stunting, a severe form of malnutrition, so it is very rewarding to be part of a solution to that scourge.
Also, I’ve got an incredibly supportive family. My wife and daughter support our work and our mission and understand my role, so that helps me better achieve a work-life balance. Balance is not easy to achieve but if we are to remain relevant and inspired, it is important.
The next questions are about the NPO sector. What drew you to the sector?
When I worked at the Health Department, we were essentially a donor supporting non-profits. I wanted to be closer to the actual work of delivery and strengthening the non-profit sector. When I moved to the Peninsular School Feeding Association, we lobbied government to take the school feeding programme and proper nutrition seriously – providing a balanced, nutritious breakfast and lunch with fruit and vegetables. It was exciting and rewarding to be part of this transformation, since for millions of school children, the school meal is more than likely their only meal those kids get for the day.
Similarly, at FoodForward SA, I saw another avenue where I could make a real difference by focusing on recovering quality surplus food and reducing our food loss and waste footprint on the environment.
What do you see as the biggest challenges for NPOs generally?
The largest challenge is funding. There are over 220 000 registered non-profit organisations across the country and we are all competing for a piece of a shrinking pie.
The second one is that organisations tend to lose their focus and their mission because they bow to what donors want their funds to be spent on, and organisations don’t stay true to their mission. We have said no to a number of donors that wanted us to use the money for specific projects outside of our scope of work. We love engaging with partners that support and buy into our mission and strategy.
A third important challenge is good governance. NPOs aren’t always well organised but, being organised and having good governance, relevant policies and efficient operations, attracts funders. Make sure you are audited annually, and that your Board is active and supporting the management team.
A fourth challenge is that non-profits need to plan better – you need a 3–5-year plan. You cannot operate from day-to-day. You need to have a strategy in place. You should align staff KPIs to the overall strategy and regularly check-in that these KPIs are met. You can’t just see what each day brings.
What advice do you have for non-profits at the moment, who are under considerable strain due to the pandemic?
One of the trends I have seen is non-profits going where the noise is. For example, many years ago when everyone was focussing on HIV/Aids, many NGOs changed their focus to that to get funding. Now, with the pandemic, I see food insecurity is topical, NGOs are opening up soup kitchens where they didn’t do that before. But the problem is sustainably – you can’t operate a soup kitchen for five days a week and then you run out of money and then you reduce feeding operations to one or two days a week. Don’t chase the money, don’t chase the noise. Stick to you mission and focus areas.
When the pandemic spread, we were in year two of our five-year plan so we just stuck to our plan and scaled our operations much sooner because we secured funding for our programmes. We brought forward our plan and increased our targets per year. We have doubled our operations and staff complement in the last year. We were able to secure more funding than in the previous financial year. But we are still implementing our original five-year plan!
Staff wellness is also key for NGOs during the pandemic. Business interruption can be a big problem when staff are sick. Make sure staff practice Covid-19 protocols at all times.
Also have a sustainability plan in place. Make sure that you diversify your income sources. Do not depend on funding from one or two major donors. Make sure you have the right staff in place for the cause.
Where do you see yourself and FoodForward SA in the future?
It is always necessary to plan with the future in mind. The pandemic will be with us for a while, which means the NPO sector will be under strain during this time. In the next three to five years we will see more strain in the sector as economic recovery will take a while. Ensure that your organisation is running cost-effectively, regularly review your organisation’s overall performance, and adjust where you need to. Keep a close eye on running costs – as donors may change their focus and funding potential may decrease.
Is there anything further you would like to share?
I’ve been involved with two major non-profit organisations now, operating at scale. The key for me is to operate with excellence in every area of your work. Mediocrity is the enemy of progress. We must strive to live up to the mission of the organisation and people we serve, and that each day, we deliver excellence throughout our organisation. Fulfil your mission with pride.
More about FoodForwardSA: https://foodforwardsa.org/