Food waste has been the hot topic of conversation for the past year or so. Whose responsibility is it to solve the issue and how can we reduce food waste on a national and global scale? Last year the FAO revealed that “every year around the world, 1.3bn tonnes of food is lost or wasted – one third of all food produced for human consumption”. Whilst many large companies, including retailers, have stated their commitment to reducing food waste, the global problem has given rise to many grassroots organisations working to find innovation solutions. Olio is one of them. We spoke with Benjamin Bell from Olio to find out more about its solution.
Tell us about Olio – what inspired its creation and name?
Olio is a free app that connects neighbours with each other and with local independent shops so that surplus food can be shared, not thrown away. The app is our response to the massive problem of food waste, which sees a third of all food produced go uneaten, and UK households – responsible for half of all food waste – bin over £12bn of edible food per year at a cost of £700 to the average family.
Co-founders Tessa Cook and Saasha Celestial-One are entrepreneurs who grew up in rural families, which experienced the scandal of food waste close up. Some years later, the “lightbulb moment” came when Tessa was moving country and found herself with good food that she just couldn’t bring herself to throw away. After failing to find anyone to give it to, she ended up having to smuggle it back into the country, and thought there had to be a better solution. And so Olio was born.
As for the name, Olio means “a miscellaneous collection”, which is rather apt, as that is what users find – and love – about Olio. But we also just really like the word!
How does the app and scheme work?
After downloading the app for free from the App Store or Google Play, users simply snap a picture of their food items and add them to the app. Neighbours then receive customised alerts and can request anything that takes their fancy, and arrange pick-up from home, the store, an Olio drop box, or another agreed location.
To give examples of when you might add food to Olio, it could include items nearing their sell-by date from shops, cafes and markets; spare vegetables from the allotment; cakes from an amateur baker; or groceries from household fridges when people go away or move home. And if you’re really curious, you only have to visit our website to see a long list of delicious items that you’ve missed already!
Olio founders Saasha (l) and Tessa. © Annabel Staff Photography
What logistical challenges did you face when starting up and how did you solve them?
As with any start-up trying to do something completely new, we’ve faced our fair share of challenges, so we won’t list them all! One big hurdle has been trying to get noticed without the luxury of a marketing budget. We’ve managed to do that through Olio Pot Luck events bringing communities together, and hosting events such as bringing the US documentary Just Eat It to the UK in a disused arts centre. We’ve been lucky enough to get some fantastic publicity over the past few months, and this even saw us trend for a period at the top of the UK App Store.
As for testing the product and validating our idea before launch, last year we created a WhatsApp group of 12 people we didn’t know – but who had responded to our market research survey to say they hated food waste – to see if people would share and collect food as we’d hoped. And the answer was a resounding yes. This trial gave us crucial insight into what product features we did, and just as importantly did not, need to build.
Finally, for those who don’t necessarily want a neighbour knocking on the door, we’ve introduced drop boxes in local stores, allowing people to deposit their items there for convenient, pre-arranged collection.
Where is the app available? How many users do you have?
People can download Olio for free from the App Store or Google Play. They’d be joining the other 28,000+ who have already done so!
How have users responded and what impact has Olio made so far?
Within the short space of a few months we’ve had over 125,000 user sessions and demand has taken the app across the UK. We’ve also had over 1,000 people get in touch with us to join our volunteer programme to bring Olio to their local neighbourhood, which is incredibly exciting. In addition to this, we’re also delighted with the reception from the press and other important influencers. This early success has also seen Olio raise seed funding from a leading private investor whose investments include Facebook and Spotify.
As for measurable impact on food waste, it’s still early days but people and businesses are saving money and cutting food waste with Olio by saving thousands of items from the bin. It’s also clear that locals are really enjoying connecting socially with their neighbours in a new way.
Ultimately, we’re confident that Olio will help society to unlock the value of food which would have otherwise gone uneaten.
Are governments and organisations doing enough to tackle food waste?
It’s great to see governments starting to realise just how big a problem this is, and in some cases even taking direct action to tackle it. In France, for example, supermarkets are now banned from throwing away or destroying unsold food, and there are calls for this law to be adopted Europe-wide. We welcome such moves but also believe that society can only really tackle the problem at scale if households take action themselves, which is where Olio can play its part.
As for other organisations, there are also many excellent charities trying to tackle food waste who are going great work with the larger volumes of food waste, and using this to feed people at scale.
What’s your plan for 2016?
The short journey to date has taken us from our July 2015 launch in one North London neighbourhood to going UK-wide by early 2016. But hopefully it won’t stop there. We’ve had people from all over the world reach out to us, so in time we plan to take our model into other markets.
More generally, our focus is on creating a scalable convenient platform that others can take and use in their local communities to stop good food from being thrown away. And so 2016 promises to be a very busy year indeed!
© FoodBev Media Ltd 2020