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Five Loaves and Two Fish: Using Business Principles to Address Hunger in South Africa

Posted By Page Schindler Buchanan, Thursday, February 14, 2013

Page Schindler BuchananFrom Member School University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business comes an inspiring story of an alumnus applying more than 15 years of business experience to help FoodBank South Africa become a prime example of how non-profit organizations can use business thinking to drive social change.

This is exactly the kind of innovative application of business education to development issues that we are highlighting in the MBA+ Challenge Video Contest (Submission period March 1- 31).  Congratulations to UCT and Alan Gilbertson for their important contributions to their community.


Five Loaves and Two Fish


Through the simple idea of gathering excess food and donations from various sources, FoodBank SA is providing food to over 1,700 community based organisations which support almost 400 000 South Africans, and is growing. Board member and former managing director, Alan Gilbertson, says that the organisation has achieved this primarily by taking a business-minded approach to the challenges.

"There are 11 million people who are food insecure in South Africa. Yet we can grow enough food to feed the whole population – it’s just not in the right places or the right hands. So the trick is to link a world of waste to a world of want,” Gilbertson says.

Gilbertson brings impressive business credentials to the organisation. Recruited fresh out of an MBA at the UCT GSB in the mid 1980s by Allan Gray, he spent 15 years helping to lay the foundations for Orbis in Bermuda to become the impressive entity it is today.

At his MBA graduation, Gilbertson wasn’t entirely sure which path he wanted to follow. "But I knew I wanted to change the world with my shiny new MBA,” he says.

"Allan Gray regularly canvassed the UCT GSB for promising candidates, and he liked my accounting and MBA qualifications. He initially wanted me to join his hugely successful local investment management business – but I was much more intrigued by the challenge of helping him to grow his fledgling international money management firm,” says Gilbertson.

An important draw card for Gilbertson was the fact that Gray had expressed an interest in forming an entrepreneurial trust, to create employment opportunities for the disadvantaged – long before corporate social enterprises and sustainable leadership were in vogue, and before the world realised businesses need to look at more than just who could make the most profit.

"I helped him establish a company in Hong Kong. I moved there, and became the managing director. That company initially managed individual client portfolios, but soon grew so big that it made sense to transform it to managing mutual funds instead. In early 1989 we researched where it would make sense to domicile this evolved business – and Bermuda emerged as the choice.”

At the same time the organisation was rebranded into Orbis. Today the Orbis Group has over US$37 billion of assets under management – although Gilbertson is quick to point out that most of this was accumulated after his retirement – and the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation, established as an education and development catalyst to assist a generation of high growth entrepreneurial change agents to bring about job creation in southern Africa, is backed by an endowment trust capitalised with over one billion dollars.

After 15 years of nurturing the growth of Orbis, it was time for Gilbertson to move on. He and his wife Carol bought a holiday home in Cape Town, while still permanently stationed in Bermuda. "At this stage of our lives we wanted to acknowledge our good luck by writing a cheque and supporting society. It made sense to do so in South Africa rather than in relatively affluent Bermuda. We wanted to get as much bang for our buck as we could, and through my research and a tiny article in the Cape Argus I came across Feedback Food Redistribution.”

At the time Feedback was a fledgling non-profit consisting entirely of one Bianca du Plessis, an entrepreneur who had persuaded a German film company, Neue Sentimental, to sponsor the purchase of a bakkie. Du Plessis used it to pick up excess food from film sets and a couple of restaurants, and then drive it into the townships.

"We loved the fact that finding food for people was simple, green and cost effective – the food was free and all we needed to fund was the transport logistics. We’d found our cause, and decided to buy a truck for Feedback,” says Gilbertson.

As the organisation grew, the Gilbertsons soon purchased another truck, but the increasing logistics became a headache for du Plessis, who realised that Feedback was scalable, and wanted it to reach its full potential, but didn’t enjoy managing a growing number of people. "So armed with my arrogance and know-how from the GSB MBA we sat down and helped create a strategic plan,” says Gilbertson.


>> Click here to read the full article in the UCT GSB newsletter


Page Schindler Buchanan is the Communications Officer for GBSN.  Email her at with stories of how you (or your alumni) are making a difference.

Tags:  MBA Challenge  MBAs 

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