Reducing social exclusion and food waste through connecting vegetables and people

Ashoka Belgium Impact Programme 2020 introduces participant Naomi Smith and the project enVie Atelier. ūüď£ In a conversation with us, Naomi shared her journey as a social entrepreneur, how important it is to collaborate and how the Impact Programme is boosting her impact. ūüó£Naomi Smith started enVie Atelier, together with two co-founders, in 2018. ūüĆĪThe Impact Programme is a multi-sector collaboration between Ashoka, ABN AMRO Private Banking Belgium and Accenture Belgium to foster social entrepreneurship in the fields of #circularity and #climate change.
Naomi Web
Source: Ashoka Belgium

Value is difficult to gauge objectively. But everything and everyone can make a valuable contribution to society thanks to their individual qualities. This is the vision of¬†enVie, a social enterprise that focuses on reducing exclusion by bringing vegetables that are rejected for not meeting market ‚Äúnorms‚ÄĚ and people who are excluded from the¬†labor¬†market together to create healthy food. With the 2020 Impact Programme, Naomi, the co-founder and general manager, is now taking¬†enVie¬†to the next level.¬†


Connecting the dots 

Naomi first encountered social entrepreneurship during her studies in Sweden. Having experienced the thrill of setting up her first organization focused on having a social impact in the UK following her studies, she moved to Belgium and was determined to find entrepreneurial solutions to social issues she encountered in her new environment. 

‚ÄúI became more and more interested in trying to figure out how to connect the dots and solve social issues. That‚Äôs how the idea of¬†enVie¬†started to form.‚ÄĚ Having met the food manufacturer McCain at her previous job, she knew that the company supported a social business in France that works along the same lines as¬†enVie. ‚ÄúI contacted them because I thought they might be expanding to Belgium and I was a bit worried. If something was launched in Belgium with McCain‚Äôs support, there was no chance I could compete.‚ÄĚ The conversation took a completely unexpected turn when McCain offered to support the project! McCain and Naomi partnered up to realise a mutual dream.¬†

Through their conversations with other big food producers, they convinced¬†Colruyt¬†to become a partner, as well as Randstad Group &¬†Reo¬†Veiling. ‚ÄúPartnerships are essential,‚ÄĚ Naomi explains. ‚ÄúAs a small social enterprise, we need experienced partners that share our values and support us on every step of the value chain, from sourcing vegetables to distributing soup to customers.‚Ä̬†

In 2018, the first 17 pallets of soup left the enVie production site. Since then, enVie has trained eight long-term unemployed people and saved 50 tons of surplus or rejected vegetables. 

We’re in it together 

The dual mission of¬†enVie, and the values and passion shared by Naomi and her team mean that they‚Äôve built strong relationships and share a profound trust. ‚ÄúYou bond together because you‚Äôre in it together for the¬†highs and the lows, the successes and the failures‚ÄĚ.

Nevertheless,¬†enVie¬†has gone through all the ups and downs of a typical¬†startup. To grow, Naomi has to make sure that all food safety and quality standards are respected. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs finding that balance, being able to say,¬†enVie¬†is here to support you, but this is a working environment, it‚Äôs not a charity.‚ÄĚ Through this empowering approach,¬†enVie¬†contributes to building the self-esteem and confidence of all team members.¬†

‚ÄúRobin Food‚Ä̬†

When the COVID-19 crisis hit,¬†enVie¬†became involved in a solidarity food initiative called Robin Food. The idea came from a Flemish organization that wanted to provide much-needed support to the most vulnerable members of society, while also addressing surplus produce that Belgian farmers were unable to sell due to restaurant closures. ‚ÄúBecause the corporate canteens¬†enVie¬†usually supplies were closed, we had greater production capacity. Our team was eager to work and support food banks and families who are struggling.‚Ä̬†

Within a week and a half, five partners that had never previously met or collaborated before launched the Robin Food soup line. The EIT (European Institute of Technology ‚Äďfood section) bought the first 10,000¬†liters¬†of soup¬†enVie¬†produced. The other partners ‚ÄstRiso¬†(Samenlevingsopbouw¬†RISO¬†Vlaams-Brabant),¬†Rikolto¬†and Depot Margot¬†‚Äď organized distribution and brought new connections to other social initiatives in addition to¬†enVie‚Äôs¬†network of Brussels-based food banks. To maximize the impact of Robin Food,¬†enVie¬†has also launched a¬†Gingo¬†crowdfunding campaign.¬†

Taking her next steps as a social entrepreneur 

Naomi‚Äôs main reason for joining the Impact Programme is to take the next steps in her professional development as a social entrepreneur. She has incrementally built¬†EnVie, with the 4 founding partners and the¬†enVie¬†team, based on a learning by doing approach. ‚ÄúWe've not built¬†enVie¬†in an¬†‚ÄėOK, I opened the business model canvas and worked the whole way through it.¬†But I do think it's important to be trained properly to understand how to use those tools and I saw the Impact Programme as an opportunity to do that.‚Ä̬†

In addition, access to the networks of Ashoka and its partners ABN AMRO and Accenture offers new opportunities to form new partnerships. ‚ÄúDespite COVID-19, everyone from Ashoka and the coaches from Accenture and ABN AMRO remain still dedicated to providing us with the best support possible!‚Ä̬†

Naomi‚Äôs advice to other social entrepreneurs is to not hesitate to talk to people about their ideas, even potential competitors, because these connections can generate valuable opportunities. ‚ÄėThe idea is already out¬†there,¬†it is how you manage to execute it that makes the difference‚Äô¬†