By Prince Lee
SINGAPORE — Ex-financial analyst Jennifer Widjaja did not foresee that she would become a food waste warrior midway through her career.
In fact, the co-founder of Just Dabao — a social enterprise founded in 2020 with her university friend Srikanth Katikala that helps reduce food waste by redistributing unsold surplus food by connecting consumers and eateries — was spurred by the struggles food-and-beverage (F&B) businesses were facing during the pandemic, where perfectly edible, unsold food was thrown out daily.
Just in 2021 alone, the total amount of food waste generated was 817,000 tonnes, 23 per cent more than the 665,000 tonnes generated in 2020, according to data from the National Environment Agency.
This, coupled with the consciousness of not wasting food — something ingrained in her by her mother since she was young — motivated her to work towards a simple and scalable solution that turned out to be a win-win partnership for both consumers and businesses.
Maximise profits and societal benefits
Today, Widjaja has inspired a growing eco-conscious community of over 20,000 people to enjoy the process of saving food, and has helped over 450 F&B businesses embark on their green journey. As of August 2022, Just Dabao has saved over 10 tonnes of food.
“This year we have been consistently growing double-digit month over month. We have also just launched our mobile app, which will contribute to further growth,” Widjaja said, noting that July was one of their best months this year. This could also be an indication that consumers are on the lookout for avenues to beat inflation, and are keen to also become more eco-conscious at the same time.
With the app, consumers will find it easier to discover surplus food, as the app will notify users instantly when there is surplus food —due to varied reasons such as excess in inventory or cancellation of events — near them. Users will then be able to obtain their favourite food at a fraction of the cost, while saving the planet.
Overall, eateries in Singapore throw out 9 million kg of unsold food every year! On a per day basis, this is about 50,000 perfectly edible Nasi Lemak platesJust Dabao
Prior to launching the app, Just Dabao relied solely on its website. In a similar fashion, consumers browse the site, make a purchase at one Just Dabao’s partner stores, and pick up a “Shiok Bag”, a surprise bag of food items.
“This way, business gain back their sunk cost, and consumers get delicious food at a great price. With a 4.5-star average rating from 2,000+ reviews, I can say that Singapore loves pleasant surprises,” the 30-year-old said.
But it was not always smooth sailing. When she first started, Widjaja did not have the “right connections”, so her network had to be “built from scratch”. Together, Widjaja and Katikala also invested S$30,000 into the venture, and as of press time, the business is “not yet profitable”. Both co-founders have also just started paying themselves.
Moreover, fundraising as a social enterprise was not a walk in the park.
She lamented: “Investor sentiments towards social enterprise startups are usually those of conservative and require a long run-way before making a big break. It is a challenge to communicate with investors that a social enterprise can be as scalable and profitable to a typical startup.”
Fortunately, Just Dabao was a grant recipient of programmes under Enterprise Singapore and Singapore Centre for Social Enterprise, while the Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment and National Environment Agency have always been supportive.
“When we hosted our first event, a banquet of surplus food, senior minister for state Amy Khor quickly agreed to attend and showed her support," she recalled.
Rising food prices
Widjaja says Singapore, which imports 90 percent of it food, can improve food security by starting with the “lowest hanging fruit” by reducing food waste at home and in offices, as this has a “direct and immediate impact”.
“Food prices have increased by 3.3% in 2021 compared to 2019 (pre-pandemic), and food waste disposed increased by 10% since 2019. In effect, by wasting more food, we are contributing to a rise in prices,” she said.
However, the issue of food waste is complicated, as it involves multiple stakeholders across the food chain with differing priorities. This is something Widjaja feels the government can help further — to promote collaboration across industries and connect stakeholders in the movement towards reducing food waste.
“From the conversations that I had with many business owners, measurement of impact is a big challenge. The government can help in measuring progress at a consumer level and compiling the fragmented data into one source,” she elaborated.
Still, she is heartened that more F&B owners understand the importance of sustainable approaches, but points out there is a “huge gap”, where some still think that they have to forgo commercial gain to take a more sustainable approach.
“It is actually more profitable to be sustainable. For example, when compactor dustbins replace traditional ones, collection costs can be reduced by 80 per cent, while reducing carbon emissions,” Widjaja said.
But systems and habits need to change, and Just Dabao is striving to continuously educate and collaborate with F&B businesses, consumers, governments, schools, NGOs and corporates to drive impact at scale and achieve its zero waste goal.
“If we can ingrain into the minds of millions of people to adopt a greener practice but at the same time, beat inflation during this period of time, we can create a truly sustainable and circular lifestyle,” she said.