EINDHOVEN – A cloudy morning sky welcomes me at my arrival at the main train station in this southern city of the Netherlands. Short on time, I quickly gather my luggage, I pull out a map and I start to make my way through the squares and streets of the city centre. I walk past the Philips Stadium, home to the local football team PSV. And after a couple hundred metres, I begin to notice a gradual change in the architectural style of the buildings. My map confirms it: I have arrived to the famous area Strijp-S, “the creative and cultural centre of Eindhoven”. The place where the Dutch technology company Philips was founded at the end of the XIX century is now one of the most innovative parts of the city. Both its original buildings and the recently built ones are host to one of Europe´s largest design clusters where hundreds of creative businesses are blossoming.
I walk into the “Glasgebouw” building, a gigantic brownish block with an industrial look, just on time for my interview with Fiona Jongejans, who waits for me at the co-working space while she chats with a colleague. Fiona is the co-founder of SUR+, a tech startup that aims to reduce food waste in the agricultural sector in the Netherlands by connecting farmers – mainly producers of fruits and vegetables – with food banks and gourmet restaurants via a digital app. It was one of the finalists of ClimateLaunchpad´s Europe-wide cleantech innovation competition, celebrated earlier this month in Estonia.
SUR+ was born during a hackathon to address the issue of food waste in late 2014 where Fiona and some friends were paired up with other participants in one of the groups. They chose to tackle the lack of fruits and vegetables in food banks by tapping surplus produce in the agricultural fields that would otherwise be wasted. Much to their surprise, both the model and the design proposal were acclaimed by the organisers and, as a result, they realised that what started as a mere fun activity could potentially create a win-win solution to an unresolved issue.
Every year, approximately 4.6bn euros worth of food is wasted in the Netherlands, of which the agricultural sector is responsible for around 10%. The reasons for those food losses are diverse. When producers forecast bad weather or pest attacks and, consequently, they ramp up production to meet demand from clients, it can happen that they overproduce and the surplus can´t be sold, so it ends up either being left on the field or being fed to animals. Also common when dealing with wholesalers and supermarkets are the strict aesthetic standards the produce is subject to: it has to be of a certain size, shape and color. If not, perfectly edible units will be rejected and wasted.
In light of the evidence, the goal of SUR+ is to achieve a more inclusive food chain where all edible surplus fruits and vegetables, which would otherwise go to waste, are either sold to gourmet supermarkets that look for fine, high-quality products at a lower-than-normal price or donated to food banks across the country whose invaluable work helps feed hundreds of thousands of people in need every year. The idea of incorporating the restaurant as a third partner came later when Fiona´s team realised that in order to have a financially-sustainable model that would make donations to food banks possible there was a need to find a source of income for the producers, who would then be more encouraged to make the effort to save their products. Connections and transactions are enabled via a low threshold app that allows producers, restaurants and food banks to identify easily where there is surplus produce available, how much there is and what the price for it is.
When and how did it start? How does SUR+ nowadays compares to what your expectations of it were at the beginning?
Fiona: We started in October 2014, quite a long time ago, and it was actually a really funny start because we participated in a hackathon (design competition with programming). Actually our team got together on a completely coincidental basis. Some of us knew each other but then others didn´t, so it was just like “let´s do this, let´s do it for fun, 48 hours, what can go wrong, it´s just going to be a very energetic weekend.” That was the whole planning. But then at some point in this hackathon you had to choose which challenge you want to work on and the hackathon was about food waste and we said, ok, we want to deal with this challenge of the food bank because they are saying “we get very Little fruits and vegetables” while we see that so much is wasted. So we started working on this challenge of the food bank and we thought of this link between food banks and farmers, but also transport and maybe volunteers from companies that could help with harvesting the products.
So that was the whole idea that we started with and I guess we have been working for around one and a half years to see if we could get it to work out. But then we had to draw the conclusion that it just wasn´t possible because both farmers and food banks are fighting to survive and they do not have the money to pay for products that would otherwise get wasted. If you think about the pyramid of Maslow, they are both fighting to get their basic needs satisfied while we are saying “hey, these products, they are so cool, you should want them, they are very tasty and why are they wasted.” These are all reasons they understand but it´s not a priority for them to help reducing waste; their priority is getting fed or selling their product. So, then, we figured that we needed to go back to the drawing board because we wanted to make a model that is also sustainable. It´s not like you want to make a profit with it but you do want to get money in it, in order to sustain the platform, to pay someone that´s working for SUR+. In order to do that we had to bring in a stakeholder that would be willing to pay for the surplus fruits and vegetables.
That´s when we started thinking that actually you don´t want to talk about food waste or surplus products anymore; you are talking about products that are actually very unique in shape, size and colour. We figured that you want your clothes to be unique, you want your coffee to be authentic, you want your car to be exceptional. So why don´t we want all our fruits and vegetables to be exactly the same? So, then we kind of shifted towards connecting with restaurants while still working for food banks. Specially restaurants that are looking for waste to be sustainable because what we found out is that every restaurant that we asked here in the Netherlands about what they do on sustainability said to us “Yeah, but organic products are so expensive.” So, sustainable and organic is the same thing for them. In a way we can offer them an alternative of making sustainable purchases but not paying the very high price of organic products at this time. That´s what we are aiming for now, see if we can find restaurants that are looking for waste to be more sustainable and also get attracted by those special surplus products.
What is the profile of those restaurants that you have have been contacting? Have they also approached you as well?
Fiona: No, not yet, because it was two months ago that we kind of put a spin on our business model. So, up until now, it has been us contacting them, also because we didn´t make a very outreaching communication thing yet. We really said, ok, first we want to test it with a couple of restaurants in the city, talk to them, interview them in a longer way to understand more their perspective. But what we feel now is that the restaurants that we’re aiming for are mostly the high class ones, because they also aim for people that are interested in knowing if theirs is a sustainable restaurant or not. There are lots of restaurants of that kind already looking into waste, using local products and seasonal products. So mostly those.
Did you question those restaurants you contacted on how they deal with the food waste they themselves produce? And was that an issue for them as well?
Fiona: Yes, we did ask and many of them brought it up themselves already and what we heard a lot was that restaurants are even weighing their waste, literally putting everything on a weighing scale to get also understanding within their restaurant and their employees and how much they are really wasting. And by doing that they are trying to implement very simple things, how you save it in the fridge, and stuff like that. So we didn´t really go into depth on it, but we do know that restaurants are working on it. And there is a startup called Wastewatchers, also Dutch, and they specifically work with restaurants and catering companies to advice them on how they could reduce their waste inside the kitchen.
It may not save them enough money to spend resources on reducing their food waste but it might give them competitive advantage over competitors to focus on sustainability.
Fiona: Yes, definitely, but then it´s a specific segment within the restaurants market, so you should take that into account. And that is also a reason why we said, ok, we are going to work with the restaurants because early adopters can be quite easily identified in this market. Whereas, if you look at for example wholesale markets you could say that they would also be a very interesting customer for SUR+ because they would buy a whole bunch of fruits and vegetables while restaurants would be smaller amounts, but then again there is only a very limited amount of wholesale markets throughout the Netherlands and they have locations all around the country. So this competitive advantage or this attractiveness of surplus products, you can´t really see that in their market; while in restaurants, it´s their core business to stand out and to be unique and we are kind of trying to tap into that aspect.
Did you consider partnerships at other levels of the food chain when conceptualising SUR+?
Fiona: Yes, we did, but SUR+ was a very direct consequence of the fact that the concept came out of a hackathon. And in such a short time you pick your focus only because you feel like you want to get the most out of this design challenge of 48 hours and it doesn´t really matter if you pick supermarkets or farmers, you just go for it, right?
Was it mostly chance?
Fiona: Yes, in a way, but then we won the hackathon´s first prize. We were completely surprised because there was no programmer in our team, but we had a lot of designers. We photoshopped images of what the application and the platform would look like. But they completely felt like this is going to be something and it doesn´t matter if the program is correct already. “You have a very clear vision of what it could be,” they said. So then the whole process kind of started rolling because we talked to the National Board of the Food Banks in the Netherlands and they told us that their biggest shortage is in fruits and vegetables. From their perspective, that would definitely be the focus. And that´s how it evolved.
Could you tell me about the FIWARE and FIspace technology that you use? What are the main features of your application?
Fiona: FIWARE is the software that we use, it´s just a kind of software that we make use of because we are part of a European-funded project called FINISH and using that software is part of that project but still within using FIWARE and FIspace you can still program it completely the way you want and for us is to have the application for food banks and farmers.
It´s very easy. As a farmer you just have a profile that says “I grow these kinds of products” and when they have surplus produce available they can make a notification that says “it´s tomatoes, it´s 200 kg and it´s available from tomorrow until next Saturday.” And then the system automatically looks for the closest restaurant or food bank that is able to handle this amount. As for food banks and restaurants, they also make a profile and they can look on the platform as if it was a marketplace. They can see what kind of surplus is available but they also have to enter what is the amount that they are looking for. On the one hand you want to provide a marketplace where they can kind of shop; but on the other hand, surplus food requires you to have very quick action. So, if I´m saying “I have 200 kg of tomatoes,” we also want to send a direct message to the closest restaurant or food bank that could pick it up.
Could you elaborate on the issue of food waste from the point of view of the Dutch farmer?
Fiona: I think, if you look at the percentage, in a way, there are always multiple perspectives, so we talk to many farmers and they all have a different say on it. But I would say that, some part of it says that a bit of waste is a natural consequence of a company that produces this much and that´s the same in any kind of factory or production. That´s mostly for very big companies, for very big farms. But then if you take it one step down and you talk to farmers that are more personally related to what they produce then you get into a very personal atmosphere when it comes to food waste, because they work their ass off for these products. They put so much effort, money, water, nutrition, land, everything in growing them. Wasting them is, in a way, very emotional because it would be the same as deleting everything in the video that you are filming. You work for it and there is an idea behind it. The most important thing for them is getting their products eaten. And then you have to add to that perspective the fact that farmers are having a hard time in the Netherlands. So, asking them to donate these products is a hard question because sometimes they themselves are fighting so hard to survive that they could almost themselves go to the food banks. So you can´t really ask them that, that´s like an ethical weird question in a way.
Do you think your company´s work could potentially shed light and spark a debate on the farmers´ hard living status and their relationship with the retailers/wholesalers?
Fiona: Yes, well, it´s an interesting question of course. You never know, in a way, because what we are doing is kind of offering farmers an alternative channel to sell products that aren´t sold to their regular clients. This is a question we get asked a lot and our answer is always, in a way, that you never know and that you want to change the food chain so we have to start with the dynamics of it; otherwise nothing is changing. What we try to do is to let the farmers decide for themselves what the price of their product is. And the result of that is that they can set their own price, which is not normal in the regular business because the supermarkets set the price, they are too powerful. If the farmers decide the price they could pick one that makes it profitable for them to do the extra work and the extra sorting of the surplus, but that is not endangering their regular stream of income. So that’s a way in which we try to deal with it.
But, in the end, and that’s what we are also saying a lot, we want to be redundant. The dream would be that all products would end up in the supermarkets and the wholesale markets and then every restaurant would have them. And this is a weird way of thinking because you are actually thinking of your business to be gone in ten years. Also I believe that the whole food chain should be inclusive and all products should have the same value, they could all be sold to the same kind of client. But that´s future thinking.
In your opinion, what are the main reasons why consumers in the Netherlands waste food?
Fiona: I can only answer to this from what I know but it´s not something I really looked into. A couple of weeks ago we were in the program ClimateLaunchpad, from Climate-KIC, where we participated in a bootcamp to work on our business model and we were mixed up in groups. We talked about food waste and a guy from another startup told me that when he buys pasta, he uses around 80% of it, and then he says “yeah, I´m not gonna save the 20% left because then I´m going to get a cupboard full of all these little bags.” And so he wastes it. I was blown away. How do you waste 20% of pasta? But he did and he was very serious about it and it was like the most normal thing for him. It´s very hard for me to answer this question because I myself feel guilty if I let milk sour up in the fridge just because I am not paying attention to drink it. This is a very difficult question, you would really have to ask the regular people or the mainstream people because I think there are so many that don´t have a clue about what we are wasting.
Have you had any external training or support on social entrepreneurship?
Fiona: Well, you learn a lot on the spot. I think, because many in our team have a design background you kind of know the beginning of the process: how to develop a concept, how to test a concept, how to develop a product, how to interview people, how to do research. Those are skills that we all had but I do think that the whole business model challenge that we had, that was something that wasn´t really part of what we could do.
A year after we started we joined Impact Hub in Amsterdam, where we participated in the “Business Model Challenge Programme”. That was really good for us because, even though there were only a couple of meetings, they were very concrete and they really helped us. That was something that we could hold on to and then we could just go through those steps. Then, through the FSE Network we met with Maria Ana Neves, who was the founder of Plan Zheroes in London. We asked her to be our coach on the distance as she has many years of experience in social entrepreneurship.
Out of all the valuable things you have learnt throughout this social entrepreneurship adventure, could you tell me one that you consider essential?
Fiona: We have also learnt that you can have very good ideas or bad ideas or an idea without a business model. It doesn´t really matter. If you have a good team and if you have people working with you that are intrinsically motivated to do something about it, then you are going to make it. That is valid within the team but also, for example, if we work with a company we really have to look into it to see who is the person that is really interested in it, completely separate from what his or her functions are. Are they able to make decisions? Do they care enough about it? If you found an intern who´s completely enthusiastic, then that would be the best person to work with. So cultivating human relationships is something that we really take along from the past years. It´s all about people.
And that why we also very much like the FSE Network. That goes for all the people in that network. Everybody works from the idea of “I want to do something about this”. If someone else posts a question, you want to help, because in the end we are all working on the same thing. If you look at how this whole field of food waste has changed in the past two years, it´s a huge change. People now know a bit more about food waste and the fact that so much is wasted. Two years ago, nobody knew. If we made this huge change in that time, I can only see more changing.
How supportive is the Dutch government of social entrepreneurship initiatives on food waste reduction and food surplus redistribution like yours?
Fiona: I think this question has multiple answers to it. Last year there was a conference organised for the whole world but it took place in The Hague, in the Netherlands, and the conference was titled “No More Food to Waste”. There we met a lot of people from the government that work on this topic. They are also aware that we are doing this and they are aware that there are multiple startups working within this theme. They told us that it´s very hard for them to support this because, how do you make a decision on what to support and what not? is this support only knowledge? collaboration? or should it be financial? So there´s just a huge gap between government (very big, structured organisation) and lean startup (just doing, action).
What we learnt from that, and this is also something that really came along the way, is that you should rather focus on a city or a province, because there there are people who work for the government but who are more actionable. So now we have good contact with the city government here and that works really well because they really want to make a connection as a city, as a local government, to talk to people that are doing stuff and see how they could support you. On a city level that works way better.
Are you also interconnected with other initiatives/entreprises/projects in the Netherlands?
Fiona: Yes, definitely, mostly I would say initiatives that have a link with us. So we have very good contact with Kromkommer – a company in Rotterdam that makes soup out of surplus fruits and vegetables. They really enlighten us with what they are struggling with and we are trying to see how we can have a stronger collaboration. From them we also know that many farmers approached them to ask if they could deliver their produce for their soups. But there is only a limited amount of soups that they can produce and get actually sold. So that´s how we know that many farmers are looking into alternative channels to sell those surpluses.
Another example of startup is Instock – a restaurant, based in Amsterdam, that cooks with surplus products. They have a very close collaboration with the supermarkets so in a way they are different that our target restaurants. But it really helps to connect with them because they are very close to the experience or the reaction they get from customers on their concept, which is a valuable insight for us because that’s also the experience that we want our restaurants to have.
So, with those two we have very good relationships and strong connections through the FSE Network. They organised the “Food Waste Collab” in Paris last year, which we visited. It was really great to meet all those people that have the same mindset. They also organised a “Food Waste Challenge” in Amsterdam, in January, and there they had coaches from different startups – me being one of them – to give support to groups (it was kind of the same hackathon concept that we started with).
What will the ClimateLaunchpad Competition Finale bring your company and where do you see SUR+ in 5 years?
Fiona: I think the competition is an opportunity for us, but it´s also something that we try not to hold on to too much. So, as I told you, we made a shift in our business model that kind of puts us back in a previous phase in a way: we have to do testing again because we have to talk to restaurants, see if our assumptions are right, if they really willing to pay for what we would be offering them. So for the connection farmers-food banks we had a little pilot test last year already but now we actually need to go a bit back to see if we need to do a pilot for the connection farmers-restaurants. So for the upcoming half a year we will be working on testing more, piloting more, to really see if this model would work, and maybe also developing a new way of talking about it. So we also want to talk and collaborate with communication strategists to see how we could brand this because when we target restaurants you really need to think about branding it and specially high-class restaurants. It needs to be sexy and smart. So that´s a step that we want to take.
Once we validate the business model and see how it works on a city-level, we could then start scaling it up. But what I have learnt for one and a half years is that you need to take baby steps and only then you can make kind of a change. Look at Peerby, for example, a very big startup in the Netherlands that is about exchanging products, borrowing products from your neighbours, which is really growing now. It has grown in about six or seven years up until what it is now. You can’t think of a startup by the end of the year and then have it ready in a year time.
Featured image: SUR+ co-founder Fiona Jongejans gives a presentation at TEDxMaastricht 2015. Courtesy of SUR+.