Cover Photo: Lenne Chai/Tatler Asia

Potato Head founder Ronald Akili on rebuilding Bali, why he wants you to steal from his hotel, and how to be a better tourist

There’s something hauntingly beautiful about mornings in Bali. Misty and mysterious, the air smells of sea foam or morning dew from the jungle—depending where on the island you’re staying—and lingering smoke from ritual offerings that take place at dawn.

On one such morning, Ronald Akili decided to take his eldest son for an early surf session. “On the water, we were about 500 metres from the shore, and we were still surrounded by trash,” he recalls. Just last year, it was reported that some of Bali’s most popular beaches were buried in up to 60 tonnes of plastic rubbish every day. “It was unbelievable,” he says.

Akili is the founder of Indonesian hospitality and lifestyle brand Potato Head, best known for its cult-favourite property on the shore in Bali’s popular Seminyak district, which comprises a beach club, hotel and several restaurants. The name, he says, is an inside joke among friends and has nothing to do with the popular Hasbro toy.

Like any good dad, Akili is committed to ensuring a better future for his children; he’s doing this by redefining how hospitality and tourism approach sustainability—not just from an environmental standpoint, but also by finding ways to sustain culture and community for generations to come.

History Meets Science

Potato Head’s hotel, Potato Head Suites, for example, was built using 1.5 million bricks, each hand-pressed by local artisans and fired using only biomass in a time-consuming practice typically reserved for Bali’s sacred Hindu temples. It was a decision in design that fulfilled both the artistic vision of Indonesian architect Andra Matin and Potato Head’s mission to embrace and preserve the island’s traditions.

“Mass tourism has been so destructive, and has taken away so much from certain destinations, but it has the potential to be something so positive,” he says. “If we don’t change how we do things now, the next generation won’t have anything left.”

In 2018, Potato Head became the first hospitality company in Indonesia to take the United Nations’ Climate Neutral Now pledge to measure greenhouse gas emissions, reduce them where possible and offset the rest.

Potato Head even has an on-site research and development facility, Sustainism Lab, which experiments with new ways of regenerating waste such as plastic and styrofoam washed up from oceans and rivers—and even oyster shells from its restaurants—into new products such as baskets, furniture and amenities used throughout its two hotels: Potato Head Studios and Potato Head Suites.

See also: How Banyan Tree’s New Resort In Bali Embraces Sustainable Design

In Good Company

An impressive roster of design collaborators have been involved in this process: think edgy British designers Faye Toogood and Max Lamb, and Dutch designer Dirk van der Kooij, who is known for transforming and repurposing discarded materials—from fridges to old CDs—into artistic furniture pieces. 

Through this scheme, Potato Head has managed to recycle, reuse or recraft 97 per cent of the hotel’s waste which would otherwise be piled into landfills. “Everything we do, we do it with the idea of ‘beautiful sustainable’. We want to make it easy [for people] to choose the sustainable option without compromising comfort or quality,” says Akili, who is currently living in Singapore with his family.

Granted, sitting on a sunbed beside an infinity pool, shaded by palm trees and sipping on a cocktail (made from native ingredients and locally distilled spirits, of course) is not your typical eco-friendly experience. But sustainability done subtly is kind of the point.

“We know we’re not scientists or engineers or activists, but we can make it relevant to our peers and customers by making [sustainability] aesthetically pleasing and cool. We want to inspire them rather than preach to them,” says Akili, who adds that upon checking in, guests receive a stylish amenities kit to reduce the need to buy single-use products. It includes a water bottle, sunscreen and after-sun care, insect repellent, biodegradable slippers and tote bag. “The idea is to show that you can travel somewhere and not leave anything behind. We want to make it so beautiful that you’d be happy to steal it.”

With Potato Head, Akili is hoping to redefine tourism and its impact on the island, and become a kind of north star for its peers in the hospitality industry who share such eco-friendly aspirations.

“We serve about 3,000 people daily in Bali but operate at close to zero waste,” he says. “If we’re able to get there, even at this scale, the bigger brands can adopt this too.”

Despite his success, Akili had no hospitality experience before Potato Head: he and his business partner Jason Gunawan previously ran Ark Galerie, a gallery specialising in Indonesian art. The pair set up Potato Head as a restaurant in Jakarta in 2009; Potato Head Beach Club in Bali opened a year later

“None of us came from the industry, so when we first opened [the restaurant] in Jakarta, we were just expressing the things we liked, from art to music, architecture and design. It was different from the typical establishments in Jakarta at the time, which tended to copy concepts from abroad,” says Akili. “I thought: this could be something fun. From day one, I wanted this to be a lifestyle brand expressing the things we love, the things we believe in, and take it from there.”

Today, the original in Jakarta is closed but the vision lives on in Bali, Singapore and Hong Kong. The Hong Kong outpost is the smallest: a restaurant and bar in the city’s buzzy Sai Ying Pun district, with a hidden music room that resembles a mid-century modern lounge featuring a back wall filled floor to ceiling with vinyl records. Potato Head Singapore, which opened in 2014, occupies a three-storey pre-war shophouse at the intersection of Keong Saik and Teck Lim Roads.

See also: Neighbourhood Guide: Where to Eat, Drink and More Around Keong Saik Road

“We try to apply as much of what we’ve learned in Bali to Singapore,” says Simon Pestridge, CXO (chief experience officer) at Potato Head, adding that the Singapore outpost will undergo a major renovation later this year that will “bring more of the things we’ve learned in Bali”.

Petridge also noted that Potato Head will be bringing its innovative, sustainable findings to this year’s Singapore Design Week—the first time the annual event will take place since 2019, due to the ongoing pandemic—as a way to “bring the Potato Head journey to life”.

Mass tourism has been so destructive, but it has the potential to be something so positive ... If you’re interested in a destination, don’t just preserve it; make it better for future generations.
Ronald Akili

It Takes a Village

In early 2020, Akili rebranded Potato Head Bali as Desa Potato Head—desa meaning “village” in Bahasa Indonesia—to reflect its mix of features, including the beach club, 225 hotel rooms, four restaurants, art installations and music studio. “We had this vision of building a creative village,” says Akili. “It took us 10 years to get there, and just after we opened, the pandemic hit.”

The pandemic brought to light Bali’s crippling dependence on international tourism. Before the spread of Covid-19, tourism made up a staggering 80 per cent of the island’s economy. In 2019, Bali welcomed six million tourists; one million visited in 2020 before the pandemic. In the first 10 months of 2021, only 45 international tourists arrived.

“Imagine: the whole island depends on tourism, and people’s livelihoods were taken away within two weeks,” Akili says, adding that when the pandemic first started, his company worked to ensure that not one of Potato Head’s 1,300 staff would lose their jobs. “We started to see not just the economic impact, but the mental impact as a result of insecurity and isolation. People were struggling to put food on the table. It really hit home.”

As a solution, Akili and his team established the Sweet Potato Project: an initiative to train their staff in agriculture, responsibly growing and harvesting vegetables on a plot of land that was originally slated to become Potato Head’s next development, in Bali’s Tabanan area. This, in turn, helped to keep their staff both employed and fed, while providing some 10,000 meals to other communities in need.

The team continued to support the arts, too. Areas of Desa Potato Head have become galleries and sculpture parks featuring sustainably created artworks. For example, to demonstrate the devastating reality of marine pollution, Potato Head teamed up with art activist Liina Klauss to create 5000 Lost Soles, an installation made up of more than 5,000 flip-flops salvaged along the shores of Bali’s west coast.

Recently, the brand teamed up with New York-based artist Futura to begin production on a five-metre-tall version of his iconic Point Man figurine, made entirely from river waste plastics, which will be displayed permanently in the courtyard of the Bali property.

And Desa Potato Head’s music programme, which once saw the likes of Fatboy Slim and Justice playing on the shores of its Colosseum-shaped beach club, launched Headstream, a livestreaming platform championing local DJs and musicians, delivering Potato Head’s sunshine-soaked sounds to listeners all across the globe.

“We wanted to focus on doing everything we could to help Bali and the Balinese people to get back on their feet,” says Akili, who says his focus is now on developing ‘regenerative tourism’.

“People have become more aware of not going back to mass tourism, but a better, more conscious way of tourism. We owe it to the destination we’re in, we owe it to our team, we owe it to the local communities,” says Akili. “If you’re interested in a destination, don’t just preserve it; make it better for future generations.”

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