Olio wants to help one billion people reduce food wastage within a decade

In today’s environmentally-conscious times, it’s especially scary to know that one-third of all food produced globally goes to waste. If food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gasses (after China and the USA).

In the UK, home food waste is worth £800 a year to the average family, rising to $2,275 (around £1,780) in the US. Globally, the value of wasted food is worth over $1 trillion (around £780bn) a year. And with 2.2 billion people set to join the planet by 2050, there is a clear need to increase global food production while preventing wastage to mitigate an impending global food crisis. 

This is where Olio, a Tech Nation Upscale alumnus, comes in. Founded in 2015, the company has developed an app that prevents food waste by connecting neighbours with each other and with local businesses so surplus food can be shared, not thrown away. To date, almost 2.5 million portions of food have been shared through Olio’s app by more than 1.4 million users.

The lightbulb moment

Cofounder Tessa Clarke came up with the idea of an online marketplace for food sharing when packing up to return the UK after living in Switzerland. After failing to give away leftover food to a neighbour, she knew that something had to be done.

“I was brought up on a farm so I know how much hard work goes into producing the food we eat every day,” she says. “Throwing it in the bin seemed equally criminal to smuggling the food in my packing boxes.”

Cofounding Olio with long-time friend Saasha Celestia-One “scratched a growing entrepreneurial itch” for Londoner Clarke, who previously held board positions at Dyson and Wonga. “It was a confluence of the right idea, the right time in my life and the right cofounder, who was also extremely passionate about solving the problem.”

The tech

The first version of Olio’s app was built by Bristol-based Simple Web in exchange for a small equity stake in the company. Once Olio raised its first round of funding, the tech side was brought in-house and developed using the React Native framework.

“We often say that our largest competitor is the rubbish bin, so we need to provide an experience that is just as convenient but more importantly feels great and is super social, fun and easy,” says Clarke.

Community is at the heart of Olio’s model. Consumers can share unwanted food by uploading a picture of it to the app. This sends an alert to neighbours who can browse and request to pick up supplies, and the service is free for both parties. 

Olio isn’t a charity, so it needs to make money. It began generating revenues last year by recruiting volunteers (called Food Waste Heroes) to pick up unsold food from local businesses, take it home and distribute it to local communities via the app.

It’s a more sustainable alternative for businesses that would usually pay waste contractors to take that food to a landfill, and today Olio counts Pret A Manger, Selfridges and Virgin Trains among its biggest clients.

Clarke explains that concept was introduced to bolster food supplies in Olio’s early days. “Our early adopters hated food waste, therefore they didn’t generate much of it. Obviously, a food sharing app with no food isn’t much use.”

Looking ahead

Clarke says that Olio is exploring new revenue stream opportunities to execute “in the next 12-18 months” while raising investment for the fourth time. The company secured $6m of VC in a round led by Octopus Ventures last year, and Clarke describes fundraising as an “ongoing challenge” for the business.

Olio has grown to a team of 20 “mission-obsessed” people representing 15 nationalities. Two-thirds are female and one-fifth self-identifies as being neurodiverse.

“Our belief is that we want to build a product that will be used by a billion people in the next 10 years, so it needs to work for everybody,” Clarke says. “It’s brilliant to have a very diverse team who can help us do that.”

Taking Olio to a “mainstream” audience is a key ambition for its founder in 2020. The company runs an Ambassador Programme which invites its users to become ‘digital’ or ‘community’ ambassadors, evangelising for the company and its mission online or in their local community. More than 40,000 people have joined to date.

“Growing without a marketing budget is a challenge, and our Ambassador Programme was a solution to that,” says Clarke. “We want a lot more people using the app, a lot more people sharing. Currently, I’d say we’re doing about 0.01% of our full potential. Once we’re at scale, then the impact we’ll be able to have will be transformational.”

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seen at 09:33, 12 November in Tech Nation.
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