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Waste Not, Want Not

Anthony Sharpe talks to a Nigerian social entrepreneur who is working to get less food in the trash and more in the mouths of those who need it.

When Oscar Ekponimo was 11 years old, his father fell ill and was unable to work. The family struggled to make ends meet and food was scarce. “That was when the challenge of hunger was made real for me,” says Ekponimo.

Things have changed a lot for the young Nigerian software engineer and entrepreneur, now a Rolex Awards for Enterprise Young Laureate and Time Magazine Next Generation Leader, he’s working to try to ensure that other struggling families in Nigeria don’t go hungry, while also working to combat food waste. He’s created the Chowberry app, which enables people to buy food that’s nearing the end of its shelf life at a discount from retailers.

In university, Ekponimo and some friends did occasional food drives for local street kids. “A friend of mine had a supermarket nearby and I saw how they threw away items when they expired,” explains Ekponimo. “I asked if, before those items went out of date, we could have them to distribute to the street urchins. They were open to this.”

It was an idea that stuck with Ekponimo after graduating.

How it works

Retailers list items on Chowberry and when they near expiration date, shoppers on the app can buy them at a deep discount. Those who can’t afford expensive food, get it cheaper and retailers throw away fewer products; it’s a win-win.

If there’s one key problem with an app that’s geared towards low-income households in Nigeria, it’s that most of the target customers don’t have internet access. Ekponimo is cognisant of this, which is why Chowberry finds its biggest impact is working with NGOs, who use the app to stretch their funds further. He says the company works
with 35 NGOs, which have to date helped feed 53 000 families.

Money talks

“When we started there was no revenue model so it wasn’t sustainable,” Ekponimo says. “The solution has been to take a commission from every exchange. We sometimes charge the supermarket for the service, but we’ve had to be flexible because some don’t want to pay, even though we can quantify how much we can save them.”

Securing backing to grow remains difficult, however. “Funding is a challenge,” explains Ekponimo. “We’re not an outright business or a nonprofit. In Nigeria, there’s no official registration for a social enterprise, and the investment community wants to be able to see what they’re investing in. I’ve had to grow and bootstrap, but there comes a time when you have to scale and move your impact higher up – that needs big cash and big support.”

The bigger picture

With the right funding, Ekponimo believes he can grow both the impact and revenue of Chowberry by tackling food wastage higher up the supply chain. “My plan is to build the business around big companies, addressing what I see as an unstructured supply chain where manufacturers, distributors and retailers don’t necessarily see the full picture,” he says. “We want to sit in the centre, with a system that can efficiently help manufacturers get consumer goods into the hands of consumers timeously.”

By doing so, he says, overall food waste can be reduced and food can be diverted from farm and manufacturers, not just supermarkets, to the needy.

“If we’re able to redesign the system to address that higher volume of waste and solve the problem at a bigger scale,” he continues, “there’s a higher chance to increase profit and impact. Then, with those numbers, we can enter more developed markets.”

Looking abroad

Those prospective markets include the US, where many people are unable to access healthy food, and there is greater access to funding, and South Africa.

With an estimated 10 million tons of food going to waste in South Africa every year (a third of what we produce), Ekponimo’s solution may well find a willing marketplace here.

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