Soul Topics

An Unintentional and Discouraging Critique of a Food Waste Entrepreneurial Idea

Delving into Seth Godin’s philosophy of serving our tribes, it seems that the goal is to find a product or service that can positively impact one community (i.e. a tribe that already exists amongst us), while sustaining us (the providers of that product/service) – so that the systems we set up may long continue, and even scale. But that comes after benefitting a small group.

The difficulty lies in achieving both the former and the latter at the same time. Sometimes, truly impactful and sustainable solutions for our communities require plenty of layers of hard work and commitment, along with ingenuity, creativity and passion sustained throughout its systems. I guess it is fair to come to a realisation that, for entrepreneurs, the monetary incentives that sustains most businesses typically outweighs the aspect on “making a difference”, and for social science nerds like myself, we have plenty of critique of why solutions are bad whilst failing to come up with ideas, executing them and making money.

Recently, I came across an article which celebrates the invention of an AI food waste tracker, which initially impressed me – on the surface, it seemed to meet both communal needs and monetary incentives (as a tech & AI start-up which can scale, with a brilliant idea). Especially with lines/paragraphs like this that were re-posted on social media pages:

Screenshot 2019-06-02 at 1.18.17 AM.png

The following video explains the objectives to an identified problem, and the corresponding technological solution.

The AI food waste tracker is a solution that works for the clients (hotels and other dining places), by helping them save cost of purchasing excess food that is ultimately to be thrown away. Purportedly, it addresses the environmental issue of food waste. Unfortunately, when critically examined, both of these may not be the case at all. As a very critical but well-reasoned comment would point out its flaws: in terms of difficulties understanding the needs of clients (the businesses purchasing the AI tracker), as well as difficulties understanding the complex multi-scalar problems of food waste:

Screenshot 2019-06-02 at 1.20.04 AM

Screenshot 2019-06-02 at 1.20.17 AM

There is another problem: It does not solve the problem of hunger, which was initially identified. Does it really help the issue of food nutrition, health and hunger for lower-income folks?

Screenshot 2019-06-02 at 12.54.12 AM

Very unencouragingly, this brings me back to a cycle of assumptions around the food issues lower-income folks face:

  • Donated food is better than not donating food (Are distribution systems effective? Should we enhance food distribution in SG?)
  • But donated food (or thrown away food) tends to be poor in nutritional value, and are not that healthy
  • Food donation and distribution systems can be very tedious to set up and maintain, involving unsustainable work processes and lack generation of a profit margin or even revenue that sustains its efforts. Besides, they are difficult to scale.
  • It seems like the solution needs to be re-worked altogether. Not only does it have doubtful environmental benefits (would food waste really be reduced in earlier parts of the global production networks? Even if so, is that beneficial for starving farmers?), it seems completely disconnected from the community it is trying to serve.

Admirably, the initiative is bold enough to target clients (hotels & other dining places) that could afford the technology, and the technology is perhaps brilliant.

But here are some alternative — rather unformed thoughts of tackling the food nutrition, health and hunger issue:

  • Begin with a lower-income community in mind.
  • Understand how culture, sustainability, costs and other factors mediate choices that undermine health and nutrition. Get people to share their results on certain diets / meals / health foods, the monetary costs, convenience, and food miles.
  • Implement experiments amongst community members to see what dietary or lifestyle changes might work. Document this.
  • Find a way to re-embed poorer folks who cannot afford food amongst communities where there can potentially be a sharing culture.
  • Build a database of foods that people consume.
  • Maybe we can come up with our resources and what we support (e.g. locally grown food, medicinal herbs, plant-based, IF, keto).
  • Ideally, there should be research, and we (the ones serving our tribes) should have our own stances (albeit slightly differing from one another), and we are ready to consider, critique, debate, incorporate new knowledges. We are not necessarily the providers of information, but we are the architects of a robust system that serves the community and is for everyone. Making money is possible, but not the ultimate aim, maybe affiliate, and to sustain ourselves – there must be potential for scalability.
  • Then, through our identity, we can broaden our reach to welcome greater target audiences, from youths to elderly, including low-income folks w/ special emphasis/targeting projects.
  • Then, we can get businesses / organisations w similar values (health, environmental sustainability, local orgs) to work with us, collaborate via healthy, mutually beneficial partnerships.


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