One third of people are ‘physically pained’ throwing away good food- yet, they do so almost daily: Interview with OLIO’s Co-Founder, Tessa Clarke

A few weeks ago, the London-based startup OLIO hit the news with the €36.2 million Series B funding round for its food-sharing mobile app.

OLIO‘s mission is to tackle the increasingly concerning problem of food waste. For instance, did you know that over a third of all the food produced globally is thrown away? Food waste is harmful not only to the environment (it’s the third-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions after the USA & China), but also to businesses and the government (which spend over £1bn p.a. in disposal costs), and to society (there are 800 million hungry people in the world). What’s more, according to OLIO’s research, backed by a YouGov poll, 1/3 of people are ‘physically pained’ throwing away good food. Yet, they find themselves having to do so almost daily, with no better solution than the bin.

Convinced that the cumulative effect of millions of small actions – such as sharing food – can lead to transformational change, OLIO seeks to address these problems by combining cutting-edge mobile technology with the power of the sharing economy and an engaged local community to unlock the value of this food that would otherwise have been wasted. The company enables each and every one of us to be a part of the future that we all need – a future where good food is eaten, not thrown away; where everyone has enough to eat; and where the planet isn’t destroyed to produce our food.

We sat down with Tessa Clarke, OLIO’s Co-founder, to talk about OLIO’s engaging community, London startup ecosystem, the company’s most significant milestone (spoiler: homegrown lettuce is involved) and top recommendations for starting entrepreneurs.

Thanks for taking the time to catch up with us, Tessa. Could you please give us a brief overview of your personal journey and how you became a Co-Founder of OLIO?

I’m a farmer’s daughter, and so I 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 crazy to me 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 that they 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.

Once I’d had the original idea, I then started to research the problem of food waste more broadly with my co-founder Saasha Celestial-One, and what we discovered shocked and terrified us. It’s no exaggeration to say that food waste is one of the largest problems humanity faces today, which needs to be solved in our lifetime, given that we have another 2.3bn people joining the planet by 2050!

OLIO was founded in 2015. What do you consider your most significant milestone?

We’ve had lots of successes–and just as many failures too! It’s impossible to choose just one milestone. Still, perhaps the first time an item of food was shared via OLIO–it was homegrown lettuce in July 2015 and was proof that maybe, just maybe, this crazy idea was going to work! Other significant highlights have been closing funding rounds, filming with Jimmy Doherty & Jamie Oliver for their TV show Friday Night Feast, and winning an award from the United Nations who highlighted OLIO as a ‘beacon’ for the world.

The company has recently completed a $43 million Series B funding round. How are you planning to use the funding? We hear international expansion is on the cards.

Expanding internationally is absolutely on the cards for us – and something that we’re hugely excited about. We’ll focus on Latin American, Northern European, and Asian markets, targeting one billion OLIO users by 2030.

We also want to rapidly accelerate the roll-out of OLIO’s Food Waste Heroes programme (where 30k+ volunteers collect & redistribute unsold food from businesses such as Tesco, Pret a Manger, Compass Catering etc.) in the UK and other international markets, and of course, will continue to invest in improving the quality of our product, and increase our investment in marketing activities.

At the moment, we’re very busy recruiting for our c-suite of talent and have been overwhelmed by the calibre of applicants we’re receiving. Another near term focus is launching ‘BORROW’, which will connect neighbours to lend and borrow everyday household items.

OLIO is based in London, the UK. What is your opinion on the environment for creating food tech companies there? Have you received any support from the local ecosystem?

The London ecosystem for startups is absolutely brilliant! There are so many accelerators, events, investors and, of course, other startup founders. We’ve benefitted from the Mayor of London’s International Business Programme and Tech Nation’s Upscale Programme to name just two.

Has the COVID-19 pandemic had any impact on your company and the food waste industry in general?

After an initial dip, the pandemic saw explosive growth for OLIO, with listings on the platform increasing 5 fold last year, and we’ve now grown our community to 5 million members. That’s because the pandemic created a step-change in terms of how people thought about their local community and sustainable living.

As we were remote-first prior to COVID, too, the impact of the pandemic in terms of ways of working was minimal – which was lucky, as it allowed us to continue focusing on executing against our mission in ways that other businesses may not have been able to.

Tell us about the OLIO’s community. What role does it play in achieving Olio’s mission?

Whilst OLIO looks like an app, its beating heart is its community. Our users tell us that whilst they joined OLIO because they hate waste, what keeps them using and raving about it is the joy that they experience through meeting a neighbour! Recent research found that over 40% of OLIOers say that they’re less lonely since joining OLIO, and over 40% have also made local friendships. Another critical aspect of our community is our volunteers – we have over 50,000 volunteers spreading the word about OLIO in their local communities and collecting and redistributing unsold food from local businesses via the app at the end of the day. So many people tell us that OLIO has “restored [their] faith in humanity” and that the community is like a “beacon of hope”.

What are the main lessons you have learned as a female entrepreneur and founder? What would be your advice for young females looking to get started on their entrepreneurial journey?

My advice to other young females – or indeed any budding entrepreneurs – is that when you’re starting a business, it’s critical to have a learning mindset – your key objective at this stage is to experiment as quickly as possible, not to have all the answers. Second, you can de-risk massively by starting small and building from there – if you haven’t already, do read ‘The Lean Startup’, an excellent business-building philosophy. Lots of people want to jump straight to building an app. Still, I strongly encourage you to build your community or product on an existing platform such as Facebook or Instagram before investing in creating something more. Third, given that more capital provides more runway, and more runway generally equates to a greater probability of success, make sure to scrutinise every expenditure you make carefully – it’s surprising how much you can achieve with how little when you get creative. And finally, although entrepreneurship can be the most fulfilling thing in the world, it is also an incredibly long, tough journey, so make sure to carve out some time for yourself to preserve your health and sanity! It’s time well spent.