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Ronald Akili, Industry Disrupter

He’s been called an artistic visionary, a champion of Indonesian culture, an industry disrupter and an entrepreneurial savant. You may also know Ronald Akili as the co-founder and CEO of one of Indonesia’s favourite lifestyle and hospitality brands, Potato Head Family. And if you’ve ever been to Potato Head  or Katamama Hotel here in Bali, then you know that Ronald and his team are leading the way when it comes to sustainable sensibilities in the tourism industry.

Conscious living is the ethos at these cutting-edge properties and can be seen throughout from the thousands of repurposed antique Javanese window shutters that flank Potato Head Beach Club to the hand-dyed Indonesian textiles that adorn the rooms at Katamama, sustainability workshops held at the resort, art installations made from recycled materials, zero-waste kitchens, and Potato Head’s recent carbon neutral certification.

We had a chat with the man behind the scenes to find out more about his commitment to provide good times and do good in the world.

From the beginning, Potato Head Family has focused strongly on sustainability and support for local communities. Can you tell us a bit about why this is so important for you?

Desmond Tutu once said, “Do your little bit of good where you are; it is those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” Even though we are a small company compared to global giants, as a lifestyle hospitality company we interact with around 10,000 people every day among our guests, colleagues, partners and stakeholders. So I started asking myself, “What if we are able to evolve hospitality not only as a service industry but as a catalyst for a greater change?”

We can play a great role of being the mediator and curating solutions in ways that are more relevant and inspiring to our guests.

How do you find the balance between offering a five-star experience and staying true to your earth-friendly goals?

It’s our goal to prove these two objectives are not mutually exclusive. You can be earth-friendly while offering a five-star experience, and in fact, we’ve found that turning waste into beautiful, functional amenities and supporting responsible, local suppliers has only made Potato Head more dynamic. This is our ninth year and we’re facing much more competition, but our financial numbers have never been better. Our customers have never been more engaged and our team satisfaction has never been higher. We started seeing these positive results the moment we began this journey.

In your opinion, what are the biggest issues Bali faces today when it comes to tourism and the environment?

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 amount of plastic tourism brought with it. But, ironically, we feel like tourism can be a vehicle that helps solve the problem.

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 plastic 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 hope it will inspire them to make changes back home. This is a global problem, and if we don’t make this change, the consequences we pay will be much greater.

Potato Head Family was the first hospitality company in Indonesia to be certified as carbon neutral by the UN. What advice would you give to other businesses that want to follow in your footsteps?

I think the easiest way to get started is bit by bit. Creating a fully circular, zero-waste company (which we’re aspiring to be) can sound daunting. We just began taking steps to reduce our environmental impact, and meeting the UN’s Climate Neutral Now standards was something we felt we could achieve. It also gave us the opportunity to look at our operations, and once we really dived in, we spotted other ways to reduce our impact. If you make it a focus, a company initiative and set realistic goals, the momentum just starts to swing in that direction and for us, at least, it’s a filter which we run everything through: is it sustainable?

It seems you’ve gone above and beyond when it comes to eco-friendly initiatives, but we know you never rest on your laurels! What’s next for Potato Head Family?

Right now we’re working on the launch of Desa Potato Head, which is the unification of Potato Head Beach Club and Katamama, along with a new OMA-designed building opening later this summer. Ten years in the making, the desa will be a physical reflection of our ‘Good Times, Do Good’ ethos and will be as zero-waste as possible operationally, seamlessly blending sustainable living with music, art and design. Potato Head has evolved into a fully integrated lifestyle brand centred around the flagship village in Bali. Desa Potato Head will lead a new movement of modern sustainable living, reflecting a balanced lifestyle that is increasingly embraced on a global scale and will become the go-to brand for anyone looking to live a conscious lifestyle without compromising modern comforts.

Amen to that. Ronald thanks for your time.