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BRUSSELS – The world in which we live is getting smaller. One of the various explanations given to this premise is that, thanks to scientific and technological advances, ideas are taken forward and they travel at high speeds between ‘nodes’ (people, organisations, etc.), through large geographical territories and with less barriers. Concretely, it is the ideas that produce a positive effect on a local environment that are more likely to be used and implemented in many other parts of the world. In those cases, though not necessarily in all of them, the impact of such ideas on specific places are multiplied, thus encompassing a greater spatial range.

However, I would like to argue that those impactful local ‘nodes’, by themselves, would remain local, regardless of how many of them were pushing forward the same ideas or what their strengths were. I think that for an idea to end up, not only positively influencing unconnected local ‘nodes’, but also changing the status quo at the national, regional and/or global level, there needs to be a connecting structure or network that links all of them, that provides them support and push their ideas forward, and that represents them all before external actors. I believe that the existence of such networks would empower each one of those ‘nodes’.

These networks must be capable of organising, representing the interests of and bringing together all the efforts and achievements of each one of those ‘nodes’ with the purpose of 1) giving visibility and fostering best practices, so the models on which they are based can be shared and replicated, and 2) of building and proposing policies that favour and validate all of those measures directed towards implementing tested and economically-viable solutions, in a legislative framework.

To illustrate this, I would like to take a closer look at the current entrepreneurial activity directed towards reducing food waste and food losses in the European continent. Over the last few years, the number of associations, organisations and businesses, founded with this mission, has grown rapidly. In parallel to these initiatives, several cross-sectoral structures have emerged with the goal of bringing them together to push forward a joint action. One of them is  FSE Network, a food waste innovation network that aims at providing support to existing entrepreneurs with access to a European-wide community of food surplus innovators and collaborative events with all members, and to help aspiring entrepreneurs with coaching and guiding sessions, in addition to offering them participation in the Food Waste Challenge, a weekend-long program to help individuals build a food waste entreprise step-by-step, from an idea to a business model. Secondarily, FSE Network is currently working with the Belgian cities of Brussels and Bruges to develop a strategic framework under which a number of stakeholders are able to implement food waste reduction activities.

In July I met with Joris Depouillon, one of its co-founders, to talk about the organisation, in a picturesque building, near the Place Anneessens.

How did FSE Network come into existence and what were your expectations back then in comparison to what you have become nowadays?

Joris: Initially I was trying to help out an entrepreneur in France. She was making Confitures Re-Belles, which is jam made out of food surplus. I was trying to see how I could help her and the best way to help her was by giving her the example of other entrepreneurs, people who were also using food surplus to make a new product. So, when I was travelling in Europe, I started meeting entrepreneurs across the UK, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria. I was very inspired by this whole movement of young people trying to change the system through entrepreneurship whilst raising awareness to a bigger audience. But most of those organisations were quite young, they didn´t have a lot of experience and were looking also for what works, what doesn´t work, learning from each other and there I saw the need of the network to build a movement where those organisations could interact with each other, learn from each other. So that was the first idea, a network, a learning community and so on.

We worked for about a year on that idea, we tried to add several things, we didn´t really know how we were going to make money and after a year that was quite an urgent question to ask ourselves. After that we started focusing a bit less on the network because it was kind of hard to get money through it, so we focused on a few other particular activities: the Food Waste Challenge and this consultancy to cities. However, we made an exciting plan to revive the network by having a community manager working on it, putting people in touch with each other and also trying to raise funds. That´s the vision that we have now, to create a learning community that supports each other and that helps other people to create their own entreprises where we give more ownership to the members of the network, where we try to co-create materials together with them on different aspects of food waste entrepreneurship, which we could use for coaching or which entrepreneurs can find on our website or people who want to start a business. We also want to create a commons, an open source database on innovation on food waste, where each of our members would have a profile and where they describe very clearly what their innovation is, what they bring as a contribution to, let´s say, the food waste revolution.

Participants pose for a photo during the Food Waste Challenge organised by FSE Network in Leuven, Belgium. Photo courtesy of FSE Network.

What is your previous experience with social entrepreneurship and food waste? What was your motivation to pursue a career in this field?

Joris: I would say my main motivations are on sustainability and since the age of 19-20 I have been changing my own lifestyle. Then after a while I also started to change or to set projects together with other people to add a sustainable impact. I did that during my studies, I studied business engineering and when I graduated I knew I didn´t want to be a consultant working 60 hours a week for something I didn´t believe in. So I started travelling, I travelled for a year to Turkey, I went to Morocco, I went to Burkina Faso where I did projects of a month each time with sustainable entrepreneurs. I tried to help them with the skills I had at that moment in return for accomodation and lodging. That was quite inspiring and interesting. The goal of that trip was to, at the end, have my own idea of what I could do as a sustainable entrepreneur myself.

Near the end of my trip, I sat down and I thought, ok, what do I really want to do, and my mind went back to the experiences I had had with food waste. It goes back to 2011 when I was doing a volunteer´s camp where we were cooking with food surplus. I went dumpster-diving for the first time there and when I was back in Belgium I dumpster-dived for quite a bit and each time it struck me how much food was going to waste and how good this food still was. First time in Belgium it was in the little village of my parents, I was quite nervous, I was climbing the fence of the supermarket hoping that nobody could see me. There were two big containers in front of me and they were full of fresh vegetables, fruits, dairy products, bread, even I found chocolate there. My first time was really “Wow! This is food for the whole week or more”. But then soon after it dawned on me that this is just one supermarket, one evening in Belgium. How much in Belgium or even in the whole world is going to waste then and what could we do with that? That was maybe the strongest thought. What entreprises, what opportunities are out there with this food surplus? That´s really what triggered me also to start focusing on food waste on my one year journey then. I actually first wanted to start my own entreprise making jam with food surplus, then I did this project with Confitures Re-Belles in Paris and then I saw the need for something overarching, let´s say an umbrella organisation or learning community and so that´s how it started.

How does FSE Network support itself financially?

Joris: In June 2015 we started doing consultancy for cities and that was quite a big step because that was the first real income we had with our projects. But then, right now, it´s really mostly the food waste challenge that we are focusing on and that we are getting income with. We see that is quite an interesting innovation process so we asked for subsidies for which we got approvals, which helps a lot right now because we can really focus on the food waste challenge and try to do it well. But for now it still does not cover everything. Almost every one of us is still investing a big percentage of the time we work for free which is fine for now but it´s really a transition we are making. We are aiming towards sustaining ourselves a 100% in what we do. And that´s going quite well, once you know where you want to go it is much easier to recognize opportunities with what you can or you cannot do. So it´s an interesting journey.

Why are the entrepreneurship projects under FSE Network so abundant in some regions and not so much in other ones such as in Eastern Europe? How about in Spain?

Joris: Alice, my co-founder, went to Barcelona to attend a summit where a group of organisations working around food waste originated from organising the “Feeding the 5000”. They brought together a lot of entrepreneurs from Spain but also from abroad. But I think there is quite a few organisations nevertheless in Spain. There is Espigoladors but there is also something in Madrid going on. For example, a girl makes pies with food surplus or kitsch with food surplus…

It´s interesting about Eastern Europe, there are certain things going on there, mostly focusing on social welfare, helping people in need using food prepared with food surplus. There is less of making an entreprise around it. I was in Budapest and we were trying to launch a hub there and we tried to bring together all the organisations working around food waste, which are quite a bit. But there was this defeatism, kind of, “you know, these models cannot work here, we stem from the Soviet time, we don´t have that spirit”. I am not saying that´s not true but there was certainly some defeatism, “we cannot do this, it is impossible”. I talked a lot about it with people from there.

There are plenty of organisations also in the rest of Europe. KromKommer and Instock in the Netherlands both. There is Confitures Re-Belles, which is doing great, and Optimiam in France. There are also a few interesting organisations in Switzerland that are making money to sustain themselves. So there is really a potential. But it, often, just depends on the people, how skilled they are, how well they do it and so on.

I believe the social entreprise model is very strong and the fact of having or developing a business model around your activity makes the scaling possibilities so much bigger. You can dedicate yourself to it 100% if you are able to pay yourself, you can replicate the model, etc. On the other hand, there are voluntary-driven initiatives which make a big impact. Think of Foodsharing in Germany, which is a huge movement exchanging food which creates a lot of awareness. The same goes for The Real Junk Food Project from England; they have restaurants driven by volunteers on a donation basis, on a pay-as-you-feel basis as they call it, the scale of their movement is huge and they have tens of restaurants across the UK and Europe. But nevertheless my question is: for how long can it go on? After one, two, maybe three years I think a lot of those volunteers feel they need to simply earn money. That is at least what I felt with my experience in FSE Network. So I definitely think that “social business” or “sustainable business” is the way forward. Also in our Food Waste Challenges that is really what we focus on, helping young people who want to start a project think already how they can make a living out of this.

I have seen in the website that you classify initiatives in two groups, those who aim at reducing waste and those who aim at using food surplus. Did you think about it at the beginning or did you come up with it later on, as more initiatives joined the network?

Joris: No, we did it actually when we were organising the Food Waste Collab to have a structure of the movement. You could say, especially if you look at this ecosystem, awareness raising is specially important, to put it in people´s minds that food waste is a problem and that we can do something about it. From that, I think, stems entrepreneurship, let´s do something about it, let´s do it in a structured way, let´s make an impact. And from there, you have the people that try to reduce food waste at the source by preventing it and so on, but also you have the organisations that use food surplus. For example, there are various sources of food waste and those sources sometimes need an organisation that recovers the food waste because a farmer himself won´t always have the incentive of harvesting it and then donating it because harvesting costs a lot of money. The Gleaning Network is a good example of an organisation that goes and recovers this food surplus and then redistributes it either to social organisations or to social entreprises so they can then use it. This model is quite present in the UK where gleaning is quite developed and they are working with social entreprises who can use these vast quantities of one or two products and process them or make new products out of them. And then on the other side you also have virtual intermediaries, platforms that connect food surplus from a second source to people who can use it; these sources could be a supermarket or a food distributor that have surplus and redistribute it to social organisations but also peer-to-peer, from people who has surplus to other people demanding it.

And I think this whole ecosystem really reinforces each other. If you look at London, it is really the most developed hub in Europe around food waste. There are tons of entrepreneurs and I think they reinforce each other, inspire each other, help each other, sometimes share equipment and share resources together. And that is inspiring to see, they are kind of an acceleration of action on food waste.

Participants pose for a photo during the Food Waste Challenge organised by FSE Network in Paris, France. Photo courtesy of FSE Network.

Together with EU FUSIONS you organised the Food Waste Collab in Paris last year, where you brought entrepreneurs from eight different countries together. Who else participated? What was the atmosphere in the room?

Joris: I think 80% of them were really entrepreneurs, then maybe some organisations like government institutions, some volunteers and people who were interested in starting something. The energy in the room when you bring such a crowd of like-minded people who all have their projects together it is really huge. They are all striving towards the same goal – reducing food waste – done in different ways, but I think a lot of them learnt from each other. The aspect of meeting each other and encouraging each other and seeing that you are not alone was a very important point for a lot of these organisations that were present. So we are probably going to do one in the spring of next year as well. We don´t know yet where, it could be Brussels, it could be London, it could be Berlin.

After Reading about EU FUSIONS and EU REFRESH, projects that are bringing together multi-sector actors in the field of food waste reduction and recovery, it seems to me that the FSE Network shares various similarities with them and it would be a strong option for the advancement of this movement to unite collective forces across Europe to push forward a wide, solid and expert platform.

Joris: Yeah, that is definitely our aim. It´s unfortunate that we weren´t created when the project was written. So we are not officially part of it but we are already quite in good contact with the organisations within them. It might be that the next Food Waste Collab we organise could be with REFRESH; last time it was with FUSIONS because there are big synergies there. It´s also for them very interesting to have these young bright minds, innovators, also present at these networking events, because there, I would say, they are still focusing, or the network they have is maybe more focused on government and corporate than on the new innovators. So I think there is a need, a definite match, for us.

I think also FUSIONS really was important to set the framework and now I am very curious what REFRESH will bring, how it will take this movement not only of innovators but of whole society further. I don´t know so much what will happen yet, I know that the people who are running it are very skilled and with a lot of knowledge so I´m confident that something interesting will come up.

What sort of feedback did you receive from all entrepreneurs involved in the Food Waste Collab? What role do they see the FSE Network playing in the upcoming years?

Joris: For a long while we were searching for what can we do with these entrepreneurs and what do they want. We did a great survey and now we know better what they want to do together: we need to exchange with each other, to know each other, to learn from each other and there is also quite a big need of meeting or collaborating with corporate retailers or food companies. So for this reason we are really keen on developing and co-creating materials with our entrepreneurs.

The first thing we will do is to, kind of, redefine the identity of the network and then create a manifesto or a set of values for our members so that we give, let´s say, more power to them, to start building a network all together. Then we would, indeed, like to create commons with them, which is kind of a resource, it could be knowledge entrepreneurship and food waste, it could be something else that is co-created by a community and then around such a commons there could be entrepreneurial activities developing. These commons will be a set of resources for new entrepreneurs, to develop their organisations, so that they could develop their businesses faster.

Also we think that we can then develop economic activities around that. The Food Waste Challenge is a very good example of that where we organise startup competitions. We actually also want to work within companies where we look at what they are wasting, why it is wasted, the amount of it, and we could create a new product out of it or maybe a new social entreprise that uses that or a more efficient process so they don´t waste that. And, I think, other entrepreneurial activity could be an incubator where we help new entrepreneurs develop or it could be coaching for new entrepreneurs, for corporate, for local governments. It is really also in line with that, we learn from our community and we use this knowledge to help local governments to reduce food waste. So this is the vision right now.

Photo (Above): Courtesy of FSE Network.

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