Zdjęcie przedstawia Ashoka Fellow Macieja Otrębskiego w jasnoniebieskiej koszuli.
Ashoka Fellow since 2023   |   Poland

Maciej Otrębski

Maciej has identified multiple powerful levers in a food system transformation in Poland and Central and Eastern Europe and is spurring innovation and adaption across the production and distribution…
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This description of Maciej Otrębski's work was prepared when Maciej Otrębski was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2023.


Maciej has identified multiple powerful levers in a food system transformation in Poland and Central and Eastern Europe and is spurring innovation and adaption across the production and distribution value chain of plant-based products that are key ingredients to improving human health and our environment.

The New Idea

Human health and our environment are desperately in need of a radical shift to a more plant-based diet. The impact of such a shift is only being reinforced by new studies from across the globe, showing not only improvements in human physical health, but also a reduction in our carbon footprint to aid in the battle against climate change.

Maciej understands that accelerating this shift in Poland, and Eastern and Central Europe, requires innovation at each stage of the food system, from government policies to agricultural production, to food processing, and ultimately distribution and retail. To reach each of these critical levers, Maciej and his organization RoślinnieJemy, serve as hub for providing critical information to key actors, and simultaneously trigger the co-creation of new networks, systems, and products to advance plant-based products.

Maciej observed and researched the decision architecture of consumers. He recognizes that this kind of monumental shift in individual and institutional behavior cannot be achieved by simply evangelizing the benefits of a plant-based lifestyle but must be based on concrete incentives, whether taste and affordability for consumers to opportunities for new markets and increased profits by producers at each stage of the value chain. This pragmatic approach has led him to be a key ally of industry and government, including dairy and meat producers who, on the surface, one would not think would be interested in shifts to plant-based products.

Spreading knowledge of food technology in plant-based protein production within the meat and dairy production companies is an outstanding priority for Maciej and his team. RoślinnieJemy orchestrates the market by co-launching a Plant-based Protein Producers Union. Maciej has also launched and supports sister initiatives through Anima International in Hungary, Czechia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and other countries to change protein consumption and production patterns for the planet’s sake.

The Problem

Increasing consumption of plant-based proteins has both health and environmental benefits. A meta-analysis explored data from 39 studies and concluded that people who followed a plant-based diet had health benefits such as lower blood pressure, on average, than those who ate both plants and meat. High blood pressure increases the risk of other health issues like heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Meat consumption also has a well-documented detrimental environmental impact. Animal husbandry alone is responsible for a staggering 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions.

Besides clear benefits, it is still challenging to access plant-based proteins due to the design of the food system and the pressure on the consumers to be drivers of change. Vegetables and plant-based alternatives are often unfairly portrayed as lacking in taste and excitement. Additionally, the market needs more readily available, delectable plant-based options, making it difficult for individuals to choose plant-based alternatives seamlessly. Not without reasons, it is said that humans are creatures of habits. Placement within stores is also crucial, as plant-based products need to be prominently displayed alongside meat counterparts to encourage consumer adoption.

Furthermore, effective stocking of plant-based food remains a challenge. Frequent shortages and inadequate visibility create discouragement among consumers. The fragmented and still marginalized nature of the sector exacerbates the problem, with meat products receiving more significant support and organization.

Moreover, major brands play a pivotal role in shaping consumer behavior. Yet, their main focus is gain, not system change, and they often fail to carry recognizable and accessible plant-based products. These supply issues also contribute to the prevailing misconception that plant-based products are expensive, deterring many from choosing plant-based alternatives.

The Strategy

Food system transformation aims to generate a future where all people have access to healthy diets produced in sustainable and resilient ways that restore nature and deliver equitable livelihoods. However, the food industry is not driven by health and environmental concerns. Maciej and his team realized that the food industry lacks insights and expert knowledge to leverage business mechanisms for food transformation. In response, Maciej segmented the food system value chain and looked for leverages to make plant-based food accessible, tasty, and reasonably priced for customers.

RoślinnieJemy identified access as the most important factor in driving a massive shift in consumer behavior. Maciej's team conducts regular public opinion polls and consumer research to check what people would need in order to choose plant-based food. Through these polls, they learned that consumers do buy plant alternatives if those are in stock. Therefore, Maciej started publishing rankings of retailers, such as supermarket rankings or petrol station rankings, where they showcase those with the broadest selection of plant-based food offers. Another insight that emerged from consumer research is that access also means that plant-based options should be placed next to "regular ones," not in special sections – like sausages next to sausages in the supermarket regardless of whether they are made of meat or chickpeas, or the beetroot burger next to the beef one on restaurants’ menus – because that increases the chance that meat eaters will try it.

These findings and more are published in reports and manuals such as: Nomenclature and location of the plant-based products offered in the menu or Plant-based dairy alternatives guide for manufacturers. Those publications reach audiences across the food value chain due to their close cooperation with food and food service industry media and their presence at industry events. A few years back, Maciej was the first speaker at the Meat Producers’ Congress to introduce the topic of plant-based meat alternatives. In 2023, RoślinnieJemy was a partner of the event and for the first time the event's name was changed to “Meat and Alternative Meat Congress”. At the same time, RoślinnieJemy hosts the Power Plant Perspectives conference, a pioneer event in this part of Europe focused on discussing opportunities for advancing the development of the plant-based megatrend in the food and catering industry. This format successfully engages industry stakeholders, giving them the chance to increase their expertise, and to set up the standards for the industry. The Power Plant Perspectives conference was scaled to the Czech Republic and Hungary and Maciej and his team are currently working to scale it to Bosnia & Hercegovina.

RoślinnieJemy engages in strategic partnerships with leading brands, setting standards, and establishing trends that other brands will most likely follow. Maciej and his team knew from research that people are more willing to buy plant-based alternatives when alternatives sound and look familiar to them. That is why RoślinnieJemy supported the oldest and the most popular mayonnaise in Poland in the process of naming their plant-based option to be recognized as good as the egg-based one. RoślinnieJemy also supported Żabka (a convenience store with 3.000.000 customers daily) to create their PlantHunter brand, and the NordFish company to add plant-based fish to their offer. On the other hand, Sodexo (a company that runs employee canteens in 53 countries) and RoślinnieJemy worked to eliminate eggs and dairy products in the meals like pancakes, dumplings, and noodles, which made regular dishes entirely plant-based and cheaper.

Besides access, Maciej knows that taste matters greatly to customers. RoślinnieJemy launched The Best Plant Product of the Year award. This annual contest includes a main prize for the overall best product as well as categories like Gastronomic Debut or Plant New Brand that showcase products chosen by several thousand customers. Receiving an award from RoślinnieJemy becomes a badge for companies that they can share with consumers and investors in their CSR reports and other communications. Biedronka, a discount store with a 24% share in the Polish grocery market that won the 2022 Game Changer category, celebrated it on the cover of their newspaper with promotions and significant discounts on plant-based products. In this way, Maciej also touches upon the third crucial factor – affordability.

To impact prices at the system level, RoślinnieJemy works with public institutions and policymakers. They have initiated the creation of a parliamentary group for the future of food and innovative agriculture at the Polish Parliament. The group provides the food industry with legal expertise; the most recent case concerned the proper —encouraging, but not misleading — naming of alternative plant-based products (i.e., can vegan bacon be called bacon). Additionally, Maciej makes efforts at the European Commission level to affect the farming subsidy system, which maintains low meat and dairy prices. Maciej also led the launch of the plant-based protein producers union, which will be perceived as an industry voice in lobbying efforts.

RoślinnieJemy contributes to the growth of the whole sector and supports new offerings and plant-based recipes of dishes that used to contain eggs or dairy. Opposite to global trends, meat consumption in Poland is decreasing. According to the IERiGŻ (Institute of Agricultural and Food Economics), the total meat consumption in Poland in 2022 fell to 73.5 kg per capita, compared to 76.5 kg/person in 2021, i.e., by 4% on an annual basis. While RoślinnieJemy cannot take all credit for this success, its decisive contribution was confirmed by multiple sources consulted.

To be able to reach more significant and faster change, Maciej identified that he needed to bridge the gap in knowledge and skills. One of the difficulties Maciej identified is the lack of specific knowledge, in the field of food production, around plant-based protein. To tackle this, he is developing training for food technologists to increase the capacity of the system to create effective processes for tasty and ecologically friendly plant-based alternatives, especially within meat and dairy production companies. Maciej points to the potential growth in demand: twenty-two percent of consumers surveyed say they would like to eat more plant-based dishes daily. In the future, Maciej and his team in Poland and the organizations he supports in the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Bosnia and Herzegovina want to ensure that the said twenty-two percent can eat more plant-based food. With cooperation with Anima International, they will also touch upon new markets and European-level advocacy work.

On the experience of creating and developing a Plant-based Protein Producers Union, Maciej plans to co-launch a farmers union, which will actively contribute to food transformation, for example, by the cultivation of legumes appropriate for a given climatic zone as lupins in Central and Eastern Europe. RoślinnieJemy supports exploring emerging technologies like precision agriculture, vertical farming, and lab-grown meat by showcasing, enabling funding, and connecting with strategic partners. Maciej envision hand-in-hand cooperation between farmers, startups, and significant food producers, retailers, food services, and customers, supported by the European and local legal system to ensure that human health and our environment are protected and restored.

The Person

Growing up, Maciej possessed a unique ability to connect with various groups and understand their needs. Despite being the son of a hunter, Maciej never found hunting enjoyable and opted out of accompanying his father, instead allowing his sister to take on that role. During his teenage years, Maciej actively participated in social initiatives within the independent music scene, where he immersed himself in topics such as human rights, animal rights, and ecology. This involvement led him to renounce meat consumption and utilize his platform as an organizer and musician to encourage others to explore plant-based alternatives. Maciej's events often featured delectable plant-based treats that served as benefits for important causes.

In addition to his contributions to the music scene, Maciej pursued a degree in economics in Krakow. It was during his university years that Maciej became heavily involved in organizing the TEDxKraków conference in 2015, which attracted an audience of over 1,000 attendees, making it the largest TEDx event in Poland at the time. As the leader of a dedicated team of more than 50 volunteers, Maciej gained valuable experience in reaching a broad audience with impactful ideas. Inspired by the youthful and innovative values he encountered within the independent music scene, Maciej developed an interest in sharing economy, that became a focus of his master’s thesis. He put it in practice by promoting pop-up restaurants in private homes that served planet-friendly food in a social-oriented startup.

Maciej's approach to promoting plant-based diets has always been rooted in positivity and inclusivity. Rather than stigmatizing individuals who struggle to give up animal products, he aimed to involve and engage them in valuable activities related to plant-based eating. Drawing upon his experiences in the music scene, Maciej recognized the importance of avoiding preaching to the choir. Instead, he sought out uncharted territories, including events like the meat producer congress, to bring about much-needed change for the planet and animal rights. With a keen eye for positive feedback and untapped momentum, Maciej decided to collaborate with organizations like the Open Cages Association and Anima International.

Maciej's intention is to utilize his expertise and experiences to amplify the growing popularity of plant-based products within the food industry. Rather than engaging in adversarial approaches, Maciej believes in cooperation and partnership. By working alongside organizations and businesses, he aims to drive impactful change and create a more sustainable future, all while promoting the rights of animals.