“The average household throws away £700 worth of food a year. And collectively, UK households throw away £13bn worth of food that could have been eaten.”
That startling fact was put to me by Tessa Cook, Co-Founder and CEO at food sharing start-up Olio, who, face screwed up with outrage, explained just how much food humans are wasting—food which ought to be shared with those in need.
She paused, and then added: “For me it was very natural to think: ‘Why isn’t there an app for that?’”
“I am a farmer’s daughter, which means I was put to work as a child, my childhood was really spent learning about how much hard work goes into producing the food that we all eat,” Tessa explained as we talked at Shell’s “Powering Progress Together” event this summer. “Two years ago I was moving country and the removal men told me that I had to throw away all of the food. Clearly this was something I was not going to do, so I went out onto the streets to try and find someone to give that food to. I failed.”
She wound up thinking that “it would be far more efficient if I could just put up an advert on an app.”
She wasn’t ready to create one straight away, though; if she was going to put her all into this project, she wanted to be sure it would work.
“Through some market research we’d done previously,” Tessa told me, “we’d met 12 people who had said they were super passionate about tackling food waste, they hated throwing away good food.” With her business partner, Saasha Celestial-One, Tessa asked those people to go on a WhatsApp group for two weeks “to see if they would share food or not, before we invested our life savings building the app. They did, and said ‘we really want you to build it.’”
As all entrepreneurs know, having a good idea and getting it off the ground are two very different things. Tessa and Saasha were desperate to turn their vision into a reality. “We spoke to a digital agency in Bristol and they became our first investor. They gave us reduced day rates in exchange for a small equity stake, so that was how Saasha and I managed to get the first version of the app up and running.”
In July 2015, they launched a pilot version, limited to just a few post codes in north London. It went well, and in December they made it available across the whole city. A few months later they went UK-wide. “Essentially we spent a year building it and piloting it,” Tessa said.
Nowadays, there are nine members of staff at Olio. Below Tessa and Saasha are three people who work full-time developing the app, along with a one-person strong marketing team managing the brand’s social media presence. Olio has over 7,000 followers on Twitter, and 50,000
A community team works with Olio’s many volunteers—11,000 in total—who are so passionate that they spend their free time helping it to succeed. As Tessa puts it, they “spread the word on Olio’s behalf.” There are also 250 “food waste heroes” who voluntarily collect surplus food from supermarkets and bakeries at the end of each day and then distribute it via the app. One staff member works with brands that often end up with extra food through, for example, an excess of sample stock. They pass this on to the volunteers who direct it to places of need using the app.
There is more to this team’s success than just the neat idea; Tessa is adamant that her brand’s philosophy is what’s helping it make waves. “Lead with the carrot rather than the stick. We notice on our social media posts, the ones that are most liked, shared and commented on are actually the positive posts about how we’re making progress and about examples of individuals doing things that make a difference.”
There is another social good to come from all of this, “If you talk to anyone who has used Olio, either to give away or request food, they say that they enjoy meeting their neighbours, they feel like they’re part of a community,” notes Tessa.
Being the first of its kind, Olio doesn’t have many competitors. At least, not in the conventional sense. In one way, however, Olio is locked in a head-to-head battle.
“Our biggest competitor is the rubbish bin, because that’s what everybody is using at the moment for their surplus food,” said Tessa. “Throwing food away is a well-established behaviour that people are used to doing. It is very convenient.”
Olio has something that its rival doesn’t, however. “The bin… doesn’t introduce you to a neighbour… and [it] doesn’t feel good.” Olio research, backed by a YouGov poll, shows that one in three people are physically pained throwing away good food.
Running a start-up presents numerous challenges. When I ask Tessa to name a few of them, she breaks into a grin: “Where do I begin?”
The chief problem was spreading the word. With such a small team, how do you communicate what you’re offering?
“The answer is with boots on the streets. Saasha and I were signing people up on street corners, handing out surplus food.” To scale up meant harnessing the enthusiasm of their volunteers. “So now, if you’re in the app, there are lots of calls to action: to help us, to volunteer,” explained Tessa.
“You can then self-order your own marketing materials, and then join a closed Facebook group where we’ve got a community showing tips and tricks and stuff like that.” If you can inspire enough people to believe in your product, then recruiting helpers becomes a whole lot easier.
The Olio app is clearly useful at a personal level: some people want to give away their spare food, and others are grateful to receive it. But how does all this link to energy consumption?
“A landmass larger than China is used to grow food every year that is never eaten,” said Tessa. “That is land that has been deforested, species driven to extinction, soil degraded, indigenous populations displaced, all the energy and water.
“That food is then transported, manufactured, packed—often in plastic packaging which takes a tonne of energy. It’s then shipped to the store, chilled, and then taken to the home and eventually shipped off to landfill.
“There’s an enormous amount of energy used throughout the food supply chain. If we can dramatically reduce the amount of food that houses throw away, that’s going to have a ripple effect… if you reduce food waste, you reduce the energy consumption.”
What role will technology play in addressing interlocking waste and energy challenges? “Technology is an essential enabler. But technology by itself is absolutely useless without people,” said Tessa. “Olio is a platform, but if no one
uses it then technology has no impact.
If everybody uses it, though, it can help solve one of the biggest problems facing mankind today.”
So what’s next for Tessa and Olio? “By the end of this year we want to have—we’re on track to have—over 300,000 signed up users, and by the end of 2018 one million. And by the end of next year we anticipate that the team, in addition to being focused in the UK, will also be in California, and/or in the Nordics. They are internationally the areas where we’ve seen the most organic adoption of Olio.” The company will be fundraising in the first half of next year, and will use that investment to finance international expansion.
Tessa ends our conversation with a quick plea: “Obviously, we’re always looking for people who want to help us.” The work never stops.
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