Can OLIO become the Facebook for food waste?

The concept of the OLIO app is beautifully simple — it allows you to exchange food and other items that would otherwise have gone to waste with others in your local area who want them.

It now has over 325,000 active users, 15,000 volunteers and is available globally. Since its launch across the UK in January 2016, strangers have met over 100,000 times on their doorsteps to exchange food that would have gone to waste.

I interview Sasha Celestial-One, the co-founder and COO, to find out all about it.

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Q. There’s a real buzz about OLIO at the moment, what is it like behind the scenes?

There’s certainly a buzz about OLIO — we’ve had 100,000s of people join through word of mouth.

On the flip side, it’s one of those things that everyone thinks is a really great idea but converting the idea into action is a challenge. For some reason everyone thinks that they don’t really waste any food, just like everyone thinks they are a better than average driver!

A lot of people think that no-one really wants what they have. They’ve got a couple of bananas and an apple that only cost a pound or two to begin with and it’s not perfect — they think ‘is someone really going to want this?’ The reality is that they do and, actually, it is fun and easy to share once you try [90% of all the food that is listed on the app globally is requested within 24 hours].

Q. Where did the idea for OLIO come from?

Whilst on maternity leave, Tessa Cook [co-founder and close friend whom Saasha met at business school in 2002] and I proactively started looking for an environmental challenge that we could tackle by leveraging technology. We almost gave up and decided to go back and get regular jobs but then Tessa shared a personal experience. When moving house she had food that she wasn’t going to be able to eat and she tried going out on the streets to find someone to give it to in the middle of winter with two small children. She didn’t find anyone.

She told me the story and her idea for a food sharing app and I instantly knew she was on to something, that there had to be an opportunity to use modern technology to connect neighbours to share food. At that time we didn’t have a good understanding of just how big a problem food waste is. I knew a lot of food went to waste but I didn’t know that 35–50% of all food produced is never eaten. I hadn’t thought about the resources that are lost in producing that food and the opportunity cost of the land, labour and water.

Once we started to get our heads around what a huge problem it was we started to get really excited because it was also a huge opportunity. There’s no other peer-to-peer food sharing app out there. The time was just right; smart phone penetration was reaching 80–85% of UK adults.

Q. What made you want to leave the corporate world [Saasha previously worked at Morgan Stanley, McKinsey and American Express]?

It has to do with our upbringing. Tessa’s parents are farmers and she has a deep appreciation for how much hard work goes in to producing the food that we eat. My parents were really big hippies and I was taught at a very young age that nothing of value should be left to waste. Our shared concern for the environment is one of the ways our friendship formed.

We felt that if we were going to pour our hearts and souls into working we wanted to be working on something that would have a positive impact for the planet. I think a lot of it has to do with having children. For me, I knew I wanted to work but I was heartbroken at the idea of leaving my child behind with a nanny to go do something that I didn’t really feel was making the world a better place. The trade-off to return to work only made sense if I was working on something that I truly believed in and was passionate about.

Q. So how did you turn your idea into reality?

We put some of our personal savings into building the app and gave ourselves one year to get enough momentum to justify not going back to work. The time pressure was really useful — it helped to give laser focus as to what was important and what was not.

To start we surveyed several hundred people — we learned that 35% of respondents said they felt physically pained when they threw away food that was edible. We also found that 90% of the respondents said they would be willing to walk 10 minutes to get home grown fruit or veg from a neighbour. We had lots of other discouraging feedback but those two data points were very encouraging.

There’s a big difference between what people say they will do and what they actually do, so we recruited 12 participants to do a two-week trial on WhatsApp. We had 26 shares within those two weeks between neighbours and it was amazing to see how much fun people had. It gave us the confidence that if we brought OLIO to life there would be people who would use it.

One of the biggest mistakes that start-ups make is that they build something just because they want it — it’s a classic thing not to do. We almost didn’t do the WhatsApp trial even though we knew it was the best practice thing to do — we needed a bit of hounding from our business school friends. I think we would have built all kinds of features that were not necessary for launch if we hadn’t done that very simple trial.

How is OLIO funded given it doesn’t charge for the App?

We have raised enough money from external investors to fund a team of 9 for two years and we are about to raise another round in spring of 2018. We have some traditional investors but most are social impact investors who specifically invest in start-ups which are tackling big social problems and have commercial potential.

We have a huge focus right now on developing more business donation partnerships. Business are willing to pay the costs of OLIO organising volunteers to ensure the food does not go to waste. It’s our first form of revenue-generation, but we are still a long way away from covering our costs.

Essentially, OLIO is a hyperlocal marketplace and we are still sub-scale. Trying to monetise something that is sub-scale is counter-productive. The reality is that when we have tens of millions of people using OLIO there are lots of proven ways to monetise an active and engaged user base — for example through advertising or charging for premium features for super users.

Eventually we will absolutely need to be self-funding. You can still have an incredible impact and be commercially-oriented — this can allow you to attract good investors, excellent partners, great employees. I think there are very few charities that are able to have impact at scale and we want to create millions of food-sharing networks all around the world and totally transform the food system. If we spend all our time fund-raising or asking our users for donations it’s a less efficient way to scale.

Q. You’ve now built a 300,000 strong community of people who care about food waste, how do you plan to use it?

The community, tips, sharing of stories — we’ve had a lot of people say that they find that very valuable so we have brought that into the app. We have just introduced a new section called ‘The Feed’. This will help us to keep the issue of food waste and OLIO as a tool to reduce it top of mind for those who are not doing much sharing at moment, so we are really excited about this.

Our aspiration for The Feed is to host the definitive conversation around food waste and, eventually, around zero waste as well. We are also hoping to ignite a local conversation where people can talk about community gardens, local meals etc — things that are relevant at a hyper-local level.

By contrast Facebook is a very fragmented place. If you want to search for zero / food waste groups there are 10,000s of them and they all have a different name. You are never actually sure if you are participating in the definitive conversation.

Q. What advice would you give to someone who wants to start their own social enterprise?

It’s a bit like having a child. The first year is is the newborn stage — you don’t sleep, you get woken up in the middle of the night with anxiety, you are constantly checking the thing is breathing. Obviously there are lots of moments of joy but you really have to devote yourself to it and when you are in the middle of it you wonder if it is going to be like that forever. The reality is that, just like a child, a business grows up and starts to become self-sufficient and develop a life of its own. You can take the weekend off without thinking about it too much! The evolution of it has been interesting to observe.

It really is a rollercoaster launching your own startup. You have these huge highs and you get your hopes up — and huge lows. The reality is there is no silver bullet — it’s easy to fixate on a particular product feature, or a particular partnership, or a particular piece of press coverage that you think is going to be the thing that translates into exponential growth. The reality is there is no one thing. You have to throw spaghetti at the wall and just constantly be trying as many different things as you can, waiting for feedback, and then doubling down on the initiatives that are giving the best results. You never stop moving — read The Lean Start-Up is my advice.

One of the biggest challenges is staying patient. Tessa and I are motivated by the impact. We have achieved a lot but we are impatient; instead of 300,000 users we want 300 million!

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