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The app enabling its 1.7 million users to share food and waste less

The app enabling its 1.7 million users to share food and waste less

By Gabrielle Johnson |

Every brand has an inspiring story behind it worth sharing. whitefox chats to OLIO’s Tessa Clarke about their start-up journey and the impact the food sharing app has had.

whitefox: Tell us a little about OLIO.

Tessa Clarke: OLIO is a free app that’s tackling the enormous problem of food waste in the home. It does this by connecting people who have food they don’t want or need, with neighbours living nearby who would like it. Simply snap a picture of your surplus food and add it to the app. Neighbours then receive customised alerts and can request anything that takes their fancy. Pick-up takes place – often the same day – at the home or another agreed location. All the food on OLIO is available for free, and half of all listings are requested in less than 1 hour! OLIO also has a non-food section for other household items such as toiletries, kitchen equipment, books, toys & clothes. Since launching in the UK 4 years ago, 1.7 million people have joined OLIO and together they’ve shared 3 million portions of food. Food has also been successfully shared in 49 countries around the world.

“Since launching in the UK 4 years ago, 1.7 million people have joined OLIO and together they’ve shared 3 million portions of food”

w: You founded OLIO in 2015. How has the company changed in the past five years?

TC: Massively! For the first year it was just Saasha and I, with an idea that most people thought was crazy. Today we’re a team of approximately 25 people, with a legion of passionate OLIOers who tell us that they feel they’re part of a movement that’s making a real difference and changing the world. Something that’s much needed as we confront the grim realities of the climate, biodiversity and resource depletion crises.

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w: As a start-up, what major challenges have you faced in the process of scaling OLIO?

TC: One of our biggest challenges has been how to grow the user base with a very limited marketing budget. We’ve overcome this thanks to our Ambassador programme which harnesses the passion and energy of thousands of volunteers to spread the word about OLIO in their local communities. At the moment we have over 40,000 Ambassadors and 1.7 million people have joined OLIO, so it seems to be working well.

Another challenge is encouraging new OLIOers to take a ‘leap of faith’ and add a listing – it’s hard to believe, but over half of all food added to the app is requested in under 1 hour! So we ask absolutely everybody to just give it a try, and once they’ve experienced how fun and easy it is to share food with a neighbour they’re converted.

w: In the past five years, awareness around climate change and the importance of recycling and reusing has increased dramatically. How has this affected OLIO?

TC: When we started OLIO 5 years ago, the scale of the food waste problem was pretty much unknown. Now more and more people know that 1/3 of all the food we produce gets thrown away, and are horrified by this – especially when it has such terrible environmental consequences (if food waste were a country, it would be the 3rd largest source of greenhouse gas emissions after the USA and China). However, what is still relatively unknown is the fact that households are the biggest culprits when it comes to food waste, accounting for 70% of all the food that is wasted after the farm gate! It’s very easy to assume that the problem lies with the retailers but, sadly, it in fact lies with us. Overall we’ve definitely seen a massive rise in awareness of the environmental crises the world is facing, and so we see more and more people looking to OLIO to help them turn concern into action.

“If food waste were a country, it would be the 3rd largest source of greenhouse gas emissions after the USA and China”

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W: In your opinion, how can the discussion around sustainability and food waste be as accessible and inclusive as possible?

TC: Funnily enough, ‘inclusive’ is one of our 4 core values at OLIO! We believe passionately that if we want to solve the problem of food waste – and indeed the broader climate crisis – then it requires absolutely everybody to get involved. That’s why we’ve invested in making the OLIO app available as a web app too, so that anyone with an Internet connection can access it. And it’s why we’re also so passionate about diversity within our team – because if we want to build the best possible product that works for everyone, then it needs to be built by a team who reflects everyone.

“We simply cannot continue to throw away 1/3 of all the food we produce, whilst at the same time be puzzling over how to feed a world of 10 billion people”

W: Tell us a little about your relationship with businesses and food retailers – do you find that companies are receptive to your message?

TC: Like household attitudes, business attitudes have been changing rapidly over the past 5 years. Increasingly, businesses are recognising that it’s no longer acceptable to throw away perfectly good food, when there are so many options to ensure it’s eaten. As a result, demand for our Food Waste Heroes Programme – which involves matching trained volunteers with their local business to collect and redistribute their unsold food – is growing so rapidly. We’re now supporting almost 600 locations with over 6,000 trained Food Waste Heroes, and these include businesses as diverse as Pret a Manger, Selfridges, Eurostar and Compass catering.

We’re now supporting almost 600 locations with over 6,000 trained Food Waste Heroes, and these include businesses as diverse as Pret a Manger, Selfridges, Eurostar and Compass catering

w: What do the next five years hold for OLIO?

TC: Our vision for the future is an unashamedly bold one – we want over 1 billion people using OLIO within the next 10 years. That’s because we simply cannot continue to throw away 1/3 of all the food we produce, whilst at the same time be puzzling over how to feed a world of 10 billion people, and keep the planet within 1.5 degrees of warming. In the next couple of years you can expect to see mainstream adoption of OLIO within the UK ramping up significantly, and we will start international expansion proper as well. We believe that it was billions of small actions that created the climate crisis in the first place, and so our mobile technology that connects local communities to share the planet’s most precious resources can ensure that billions of small actions can help get us out of it.

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Our book would be about empowering everyday people to make a difference”

w: Your recent ad campaign asks the question, “When did sharing food become weirder than wasting it?” Community sharing in large cities such as London has decreased over the years but digital communities are thriving. Could you talk a little about choosing to make OLIO app-based and what technology means for the future of food sharing and community sharing more broadly?

TC: It’s sad but true that, whilst we’re more connected than ever before, we’re also lonelier than we’ve ever been. This is reflected in the fact that 9 million people in the UK say they are ‘always or often’ lonely. We see a major driver for this being that we just don’t know our neighbours! To Saasha and I it was very intuitive to use an app to solve the food waste problem because it’s something that needs to be solved at scale, and fast, which is what digital products are uniquely good at. Our objective, though, isn’t to get people to spend as much time as possible on OLIO – it’s the opposite, we want to get them off the app and meeting a neighbour in real life, as that’s where the magic happens!

w: And finally, if you were to write a book about OLIO, what would be its message? 

TC: Our book would be about empowering everyday people to make a difference. We would focus on the message that it took billions of small actions to cause the climate crisis, so surely by the same logic, billions of small actions can help get us out of it.

whitefox loved chatting to Tessa about OLIO and their story so far – fingers crossed there’s a book in the works!

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