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Online platform linking growers to farmers promises to reduce food waste

2nd Jul 2024 - 04:00
The launch of an online platform linking growers and buyers promises to put a dent in food waste on farms while providing caterers and small retailers with bargain prices for local produce, writes David Foad.

The figures make for grim reading. Globally 30% of food is estimated to be waste and this costs an estimated £500bn, while in the UK we waste 13m tonnes of food every year with food waste disposal accounting for 6% of the UK’s total CO2 emissions.

At least 1.6m tonnes of edible food is wasted on UK farms every year – it just never makes it past the farm gate. This happens for a number of reasons, including fruit and vegetables that don’t conform to strict marketing standards due to shape, size, or blemishes; contractors changing their mind after planting; unpredictable weather; and changeable consumer demand.

Growing food requires a huge amount of resources including energy, water, chemicals, labour and money. Wasting food wastes the resources that go into growing and harvesting it and this is directly impacting on a farming industry that is already feeling the brunt of climate change and economic hardship.

Food banks and FareShare, the UK’s national network of charitable food redistributors, currently take an estimated 1% of this produce to help pass on to struggling families or turn into meals. Which means the vast majority of it is either turned into animal feed or left to rot.

Against this backdrop now comes something called Ample Marketplace, which promises to reduce farm food waste by helping farmers and growers find new markets for what is currently surplus food. It is the creation of three co-founders – Steve Thomas, Mark Simpson, and Matt Warnock-Parkes, who say they share a deep-seated passion for combating food waste.

Fuelled by a shared vision, they embarked on a journey to create something impactful by setting up Foodify, which they describe as ‘an innovative startup poised to disrupt the food industry by reducing waste and promoting fairness’.

That shared sense of purpose has now resulted in the birth of Ample, a smart marketplace designed to ‘support a fairer food system in the UK’.

Co-founder and chief executive Steve Thomas says: “My background is in the food redistribution world, the charity sector, in fund-raising, and in tech. I worked on the Felix Project, part of FareShare, and that’s how me Mark Simpson and Matt Warnock Parkes came together. We saw the amount donated was tiny compared to the volumes that were surplus or waste. That’s at least 1m tonnes that never leaves the farm gate for understandable but not good reasons.”

A case in point on their own doorstep are the families and firms that make up the Lea Valley Growers Association, the complex of glasshouses known as the ‘Salad Bowl of England’. It is just 20 miles from central London and produces over 80m cucumbers and 70m peppers a year, around 75% of the UK crop.

Steve found out that the growers have to strip everything out every three weeks to re-plant, but in doing so they are left with up to 20% of their crop and no outlet for it.

“There is no longer a town square market to sell it as they don’t exist. We saw an opportunity-stroke-tragedy that is out there and we wanted to change that. We want to recreate a channel that has disappeared. Supermarkets leave the growers with the surplus, the farmer holds that loss. We want to change that, with relevant local buyers who want to buy local and don’t care if it’s a bit wonky.

“It’s nice to be able to have a grower that can now set their own price through our platform.”

He describes the way the platform works as not dissimilar to Amazon. “Buyers pay within 14 days and we take a small commission. We already have lots of smaller customers as well as the big retailers, and some of the growers are now saying that if this works they want to grow more. It’s a change of behaviour, a change in the way produce is bought and sold.

“Surplus is not an occasional opportunity, lots of it is there now and you can make a pre-purchase for months ahead. Both sides are delighted that it works that way.”

Some buyers go and collect, a trader might have their own vehicles, but he expects that most caterers will want delivery, so part of the Ample system is an integrated logistics tool that provides a choice of delivery.

“Our couriers are experienced in transporting food in the right condition, usually same day, sometimes overnight. Buyers choose how fast and when at the time they place their order.”

So how does it work?

Steve explains: “It is designed to be really easy. We tested and refined the early system before launching on June 18th. Anybody can browse the site, search for anything - salads, berries, top fruit, fresh British food - look, choose, pay.

“There’s a quick turnaround for growers. New buyers are asked to pay in advance with a card, this is the flip side of the prices being a bit cheaper.

“There’s then 24 hours to check it out and if there is any problem with the produce you simply take a photo and we sort it out. We hold the money until the buyer is satisfied. On the occasions the buyer is not happy, the produce is taken away and donated and the money refunded. We’re focusing on food surpluses right now, but also looking to add stored food in the future and even imported items too.”

He says Ample is also planning to increase the flexibility of the payment system. “Some buyers can’t do cash in advance, so we are looking at limited credit facilities for those who apply, and credit transfer too, so we don’t exclude those buyers. We’re also investigating introducing trade credit from a third-party provider on 30-day or 90-day arrangement, which we think will appeal to small buyers.”

One of the early users of Ample is Juniper Ventures, the school meals provider in Newham (see boxout). Steve says the connection came about because he already knew the London borough’s head of local food strategy Andy Gold.

“Michael Hales and his team at Juniper are the perfect target for Ample. They are a large-scale buyer who needs a keen price, and our prices are below the market price. As well as schools, hospitals and universities the platform will appeal to food manufacturers, food processors, and wholesalers. They are less interested in buying local but they like the price.

“And local food economies – we’d like to see them use Ample to buy and sell food among really local buyers. Often they don’t realise that food growers and processors might be just a few miles away. Just think of farm shops, they are very popular and often have prices that match the supermarkets. In time we’d like to see that more localised approach to food.”

He says that internationally there are examples in the US and Australia of businesses doing something similar, but nothing like it existed in the UK until now. There are wholesalers who have shops, but incorporating surplus food and releasing that food is something completely new.”

He concludes: “We built Ample so that growers, producers and buyers can connect more effectively, to support a healthier food chain. We want a world where every bit of food reaches its peak potential.

“We measure the ability to which we can change the world. Ample is about the right price for the right product, but it’s not our primary goal. You need the money to oil the wheels, but to create a social impact is more important than anything.

“That is why we are really excited to be launching Ample Marketplace because we believe it will make a big difference to the effectiveness of our broken food chain.

“We can’t bear to see good food go to waste, especially when we all know how important it is to act and mitigate climate change. But also - crucially - we are bringing high quality British food for business buyers at keen prices.”

Written by
David Foad