Three foodies in Dubai are selling a sweet deal: have your cake and eat it too, while saving unused food, helping the environment and getting a discount on your next meal.
Excess mounds of food in the city’s signature brunches and loaded buffets get tossed away, much to the frustration of Erika Daintry, Malin Raman Delin and Alice Kaboli, the Nordic all-female trio behind food-tech start-up BonApp.
“We were at a brunch in Dubai and saw all the remaining food in the buffet, which really made us open our eyes and realise that so much food is wasted,” says Erika Daintry, co-founder and relationship manager of BonApp.
Now 85 eateries in Dubai can opt to try and sell excess meals quickly on the cheap through the mobile application, BonApp, launched in January.
The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that about a third of food produced for human consumption - around 1.3 billion tonnes globally - is lost or wasted every year. In the UAE, almost half the food served in lunch buffets at hotels is wasted, according to a 2017 study by Masdar Institute. In October, Dubai launched a campaign pushing for “zero tolerance” of food waste by consumers and the food industry.
Restaurants with excess pre-packaged foods, unsold meals and freshly-baked products can list their spare produce on BonApp. Users receive notifications when a nearby establishment has fresh inventory for sale. This can then be purchased through the app for discounts of up to 60 per cent on the usual retail price and collected it in person. BonApp takes a cut of the transaction but the founders declined to reveal the value
The founders, who are connected by a mutual passion for sustainable living, wanted to start a business that makes it easier for busy consumers to do good, for restaurants to get more customers and for both to reduce their carbon footprint.
“From an ethical point of view, we wanted to put the value back into food as something that should be eaten not thrown away,” Ms Daintry says. “We found out that food waste actually is a big problem from an environmental point of view also.”
Throwing food away wastes water, energy and the fuel needed to grow, store and transport it. Discarded food ends up in landfills where it rots, releasing harmful greenhouse gases.
The idea for BonApp was born in November 2016 and it took a year to study the market, talk to the food industry, develop contacts and get feedback from vendors. Timing was crucial: the idea felt “premature” but the female entrepreneurs wanted to be “pioneers” of food waste management in the UAE. The plan was solidified by Dubai Government’s campaign months later, Ms Delin, co-founder and managing director of BonApp, said.
The founders, who quit their full-time jobs to focus on the start-up, have poured their savings into the business and obtained additional funding from two angel investors, raising Dh500,000, Ms Delin says.
They are awaiting approval for acceptance into a local accelerator and are in early talks with venture capitalists to raise more funds while increasing their valuation in the market within the next six to 12 months, she says, declining to reveal the size of investments sought.
The three month-old start-up has gained 1,500 customer app downloads and saved 100 kilos of food since its launch, growing 20 per cent month-on-month, Ms Delin says.
BonApp plans to cover the UAE market after this summer and engage the entire food chain from farms to groceries and hotels, she says. It will also work with established charities so that users can buy a meal on the app and donate it.
They plan to sign up another 500 restaurants this year from upscale dining to quick-service joints. Also on the list are meal-plan providers and organic-produce box deliveries who get last-minute cancellations and can sell the excess food via the app.
"We see huge potential," Ms Delin says.
The founders want to reduce food waste in the UAE by 15 per cent, the equivalent of 150,000 cars’ CO2 emissions, within two years and create sustainable consumption from bio-degradable packaging to food delivery.
“Our tagline is 'eat well, save money and make a difference',” Ms Daintry says. “It’s a triple-win solution.”
The Masdar City-based company, which has operations in Dubai, will aim for Series A funding to back plans for expansion across the Middle East in its second year, Ms Delin says.
They are seeking partnerships across the GCC and region before deciding on the first location outside the UAE. BonApp has already been approached by investors in Saudi Arabia, a big but challenging market, she says.
They say the business will break even by mid-2019 and become profitable by the end of that year, driven by increasing awareness about waste among the food and beverage industry, government initiatives to minimise food loss and growing interest from local restaurants keen to find solutions, Ms Delin says.
The challenge within the UAE is often customers’ perception of unsold discounted food as less fresh or desirable. Another challenge is the sprouting of similar apps around the country that can replicate or replace the BonApp model.
“We have first-mover advantage,” Ms Delin says. “It takes time to build relationships in the market.”
An updated version of BonApp will be released in May offering users the added option of delivery, with an Arabic language option of the app to come later.
BonApp is also gearing up for Ramadan which will start in mid-May, when more than half of food served at iftar meals is wasted, according to the Masdar study. Though it is a month of self-discipline and restraint, it is often heralded by lavish hotel buffets and a significant spike in grocery shopping.
“We want to save 100 kilos of food in Ramadan,” Ms Daintry says. “It is a time of reflection and thinking of others. Food waste contradicts the spirit of the month.”
The founders, who come from Finland and Sweden, have divided business tasks according to their interests and skills: Ms Daintry has a sustainability background and handles sales; Ms Kaboli has an eye for design and is taking marketing courses; and Ms Delin juggles the finances. A technical team in Egypt led by Joseph Wahba, the chief technology officer, has developed the app and continues to work on updates.
BonApp joins a number of bigger European and American start-ups looking to connect retailers and customers to cut food waste. Swedish food mobile app Karma launched in London in February after an initial roll out in 35 cities across Sweden. In January, the Walton family, heirs to the Walmart stores, invested in US-based start-up Foodmaven that has completed an $8.6 million Series A fundraising round. London-based Olio allows people to give away food in small quantities to neighbours. Too Good to Go offers a similar service to Karma across Europe.
The BonApp trio believe they've got the right mix of ingredients for a success recipe: passion, commitment, hard work, and a pinch of optimism, while living their dream to create a sustainable lifestyle.
"This is my passion and this is what motivates me," Ms Delin says. "You just need to take the leap and do it, it hurts because you don't have the fancy lifestyle that you used to, but it doesn't matter because this is what I want to do.
"It's living the poor dream. But we're having so much fun."