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We interviewed Tessa Cook the Co-Founder of OLIO about the food sharing app.
In case our readers haven’t come across OLIO yet, can you explain what the OLIO app is and when it launched?
OLIO is a free app that connects neighbours with each other and with local shops & cafes so that surplus food can be shared, not thrown away. Users (consumers, OLIO volunteers or local businesses) simply snap a picture of their items and add them to OLIO. Neighbours then receive customised alerts and can request anything that takes their fancy. Pick-up takes place – often the same day – at the home/store, an OLIO Drop Box, or another agreed location. Items typically found on the app include food nearing its use-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, move home or start a diet. OLIO was piloted in a small part of North London in July last year, and then at the end of January this year was made available throughout the UK, and in October was expanded so it can be used anywhere in the world!
Can you tell me a bit about you, your team, how you came up with the food sharing idea and how you brought it to life?
I’m a farmer’s daughter, and so have always hated throwing away good food. This is because I know from first-hand experience just how much hard work goes into producing it! As a result, the inspiration for OLIO came when I was moving country and found myself on moving day with some good food that we hadn’t managed to eat, but that I couldn’t bring myself to throw away. And so I set off on a bit of a wild goose chase to try and find someone to give it to, and I failed miserably. Through the whole process it seemed to me crazy that I should have to throw this food away when there were surely plenty of people within hundreds of metres of me who would love it, the problem was they just didn’t know about it. And so the idea of OLIO, a mobile app where neighbours and local shops & cafes can share surplus food, came about. When I pitched the concept to my Co-Founder Saasha Celestial-One (the daughter of Iowan hippies as her last name suggests!), she immediately got it, and we decided to work together to bring OLIO to life. After conducting a ‘proof of concept’ trial using Whatsapp (we joined 12 strangers together into a group who lived near one another and asked them to share their surplus food for 2 weeks), we worked with Simpleweb, a Bristol based development agency, to build the very first version of the app. And then at the end of last year we raised our first external funding which then enabled us to bring on our very first employees, and we now have a team of 7 plus Saasha and I.
Like most kids I always had to sit at the table until I’d finished my meal, so the idea of not wasting food was ingrained from an early age. Why is reducing food waste important to you and what impact would you like Olio to have?
Unfortunately food waste is one of the largest problems facing mankind today. Globally, over a third of all the food we produce is thrown away, which is worth over $1 trillion. But what a lot of people don’t realise is that in the ‘developed’ world, over half of all food waste occurs in the home – in contrast to just 2-3% that takes place at a retail store level. And so in the UK, households bin over £12bn of edible food p.a., at a cost of £700 to the average family! Food waste is also really bad for the environment – a land mass larger than China is used to grow food each year that is never eaten. And if food waste were to be a country it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases (after China and the USA). Finally, food waste is just morally wrong given that there are 800m malnourished people in the world – who could be fed on just a quarter of the food we waste here in the UK, EU and USA. And here at in the UK, over 500k people accessed a Food Bank last year, and many millions more live in food poverty. And as if all of this wasn’t bad enough, we have another 2.3 billion people joining the planet by 2050 and we currently have no idea how we’re going to feed them all. Here at OLIO we’d suggest that a great starting point would be to stop wasting the food we currently have.
How much food has been shared? How much food waste has been reduced?
So far we have had over 160,000 items of food that have been shared, which is equivalent to over 30 tonnes and 70,000 meals. A great start, but we know that we aren’t even scratching the surface yet!
Why do you think sharing is so popular at the moment? What role has new technology played in sharing?
A lot of people think that sharing is a new concept, but actually it’s one of the very oldest forms of human social behaviour. There is evidence of humans sharing food that dates back to over 2 million years ago, and if you think about it, it makes sense that we shared our most precious resources, rather than threw them away! Unfortunately over the past 40 or 50 years we have lost the ability to share as we have retreated into our nuclear families and become increasingly isolated from our local communities, whilst simultaneously being encouraged to buy as much stuff as we can(not) afford. OLIO, and other sharing solutions, are aiming to harness the power of technology to once again connect communities with each other so that stronger social bonds formed and our precious resources are used not discarded.
I found out about your app through a friend who is based in East London, she has been using it lots for food sharing but when I signed up I found that you can share non-edible stuff too, how did that development come about?
We found that our users were adding lots of non-food items to the app such as toiletries, cosmetics, light bulbs and other household items. Rather than keep on taking them down we thought, why not create a separate section. After all, people who love OLIO tend to hate waste of any form, and so allowing non-food sharing was a very natural extension for us.
Is Olio location specific? Where are the majority of users based? Can individuals and businesses sign up?
OLIO is free to download and free to use and can be used anywhere in the world. And so we’ve seen food sharing networks springing up in places as far apart as the USA, Sweden, South Africa, Finland and Russia. The majority of our users (85%) are based in the UK, and so our international expansion is happening thanks to our OLIO Ambassadors, who are volunteers helping to spread the word about OLIO in their local community. OLIO can be used by individuals as well as businesses. And if a business has a lot of surplus food then they can contact us to see if they can join our Food Waste Heroes programme whereby our volunteers collect unsold food at the end of the day and redistribute it via the app.
Have you approached many big businesses like Tesco? If so, was the idea well received?
Yes, we have been working with Sainsburys up in Swadlincote in Derbyshire since earlier this year. Here we’re not only spreading the word about OLIO to Sainsburys shoppers but we are also working to redistribute their store surplus via our Food Waste Heroes Programme, after the charities have taken what they want. And we have pilots with several other major retailers planned for 2017.
Have you worked with The People’s Kitchen or any similar organisations?
We work with lots of charities and community groups – both to provide them with surplus food via the app, and also to redistribute their surplus food via the app too.
Have you experienced any resistance?
When we speak to people about OLIO, we find that people either “get it” or they don’t. What’s been really amazing though it to see just how many people do get it, and are excited that a solution like OLIO now exists. And for those that don’t yet get it, we know that it will take time, but that at some point in the not too distant future we hope that throwing away good food will become as socially taboo as littering or graffiti-ing.
How can people get involved and spread the word in their local communities, cafes and shops?
Anyone who is passionate about our mission to reduce waste, and food waste in particular, should check out the get involved section on our web site – www.olioex.com. Here you can find out lots more information on all the different ways in which you can get involved – either by joining our 8,000 (and counting) Ambassadors who are spreading the word about OLIO in their local community, or by becoming a Food Waste Hero and rescuing unsold food from local shops.
Finally, what do you expect to be the most shared items this Christmas?
I’m pretty sure that chocolate will be the number one most shared item, probably closely followed by Christmas Puddings – we had xmas puds coming onto the app even until May this year! And a perennial favourite is fancy tea flavours – people try one bag, decide it’s not for them and so sharing it on OLIO is the perfect way to make somebody else’s day and to clear some space in your cupboards!
Thanks so much Tessa, we’re very inspired and can’t wait to get sharing over the festive period!
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Thanks for reading!
Vix & Lou
*If you’d like to share tips on how you reduce waste and create a positive impact in your business we’d love to hear from you.