When was the last time you looked in your fridge and had to throw something away? For many of us, this is more common than we’d like to admit.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that, every year, a third of food produced does not even reach the table.
This amounts to huge wastage and inefficiency – issues highlighted in UN Environment’s most recent Sustainable Development Goals Policy Brief.
Reducing food waste is considered one of the top five areas of concern in moving towards more sustainable lifestyles. Doing this successfully requires action at every level.
As individuals, we can fight food waste by cooking less, sharing with neighbours, buying ugly produce, composting and raising awareness among our communities. But systematic changes across major industries are also necessary to tackle the global issue of food waste.
Garrette Clark, UN Environment’s Sustainable Lifestyles Programme Officer, said: “Individuals as well as food providers can reduce food waste by planning what food is needed, designing dishes that use leftovers and managing how to store food to maximize freshness.”
She also said broader system issues can also be addressed, by actively looking for sustainably produced foods, talking about healthy and sustainable food with vendors and producers; avoiding excessive packaging or starting urban, school or kitchen garden, while supporting organizations and policies which promote more sustainable food systems.
Twenty-six-year-old Naomi MacKenzie co-founded an organization to address this very challenge. Her Swiss-based start-up KITRO is working to provide an automated solution to capture data and tackle food waste in the hospitality industry.
What is KITRO and what inspired you to start it?
KITRO grew out of a university competition and is now operating throughout Switzerland with plans to expand to neighbouring countries. The kitchen hardware device scans and analyses food thrown away in a kitchen. Accompanying software sends users a report on the type of food wasted and costs incurred.
Why did you want to work on this environmental issue specifically?
My co-founder and I spent many hours working in kitchens and catering events in the hospitality industry. As junior staff members, we found ourselves throwing away enormous amounts of edible food every day. Things tend to operate fast in kitchens and maintaining an overview of what is thrown away is difficult. When we started looking for solutions to measure food waste, we found that existing options were manual. It became clear that to tackle food waste, we would have to know what food is being thrown away, and how much food is being wasted. Our goal at KITRO is to provide a long-term solution that becomes as essential to a kitchen as a dishwasher or an oven, and helps companies track their food waste over time. We generate data through automated solutions that blend seamlessly into kitchen and service routines.
What positive environmental impact do you hope to have through your product?
If you go back a generation, food had a much higher value. We would think before throwing something away. As food became cheaper, we have lost our sense for what it means to produce a carrot, for example—the water resources that go into it, the labour, the packaging, the transportation. Our goal is to foster awareness about food waste, and to demonstrate to consumers—including big businesses and the industry—that while food waste is a huge issue, it is possible for you to take a decision and make a positive change.
Do you think the hospitality industry is becoming more sustainable?
It has absolutely been changing for the better. A lot of hotel groups now have corporate social responsibility teams, sustainability strategies, and roles such as sustainability managers. This is a growing and positive trend.
What were the main obstacles in creating and perfecting your product?
We wanted to build a tech-based product—but we can’t even code! This was a major obstacle. But because we had to think through and explain our project clearly to others, the fact that we couldn’t build our product ourselves turned out positively. Secondly, we were fortunate to receive support along the way, but starting a company in Switzerland is financially highly intensive. Our first client, the restaurant Holy Cow, expressed interest in our project based on our initial thoughts laid out on paper. Unicorn Labs, an association building prototypes for new ideas, built our product for free, covering material costs in exchange for promotion and recognition of our collaboration. There were many players that helped us overcome the financial hurdle, but it remained a challenge.
What is your advice for young entrepreneurs looking to start a business to help fight for a sustainable future?
Everything takes longer than you expect it to. Whether it’s building hardware, raising the funds, hiring people—the unexpected comes up and it takes forever. In a start-up, speed and agility are considered important, but it is always better to be generous when calculating timelines. Consider an external timeline to share, and an internal one with some additional buffers. Second, if you need something, go out and ask! The worst thing that can happen is that someone says no. Asking for support has opened many doors for us. Being a very young team, we didn’t have much experience in starting or running a business, but with support, we have managed to build a dynamic company.
The Young Champions of the Earth prize, powered by Covestro, recognizes and celebrates young entrepreneurs making a difference for the environment. The winners for 2019 will be announced in September. Applications open again in January 2020. Stay tuned!