The pioneer of food saving in Germany, Raphael Fellmer is now mainstreaming and commercializing saved food as a solution to the significant global problem of food waste.
The New Idea
Raphael decreases food waste by creating a market for unused food. Recognizing that the food saving movement in Europe falls far short of its potential impact, Raphael has launched SirPlus to address systemic barriers at the demand and supply end. He increases consumer demand for surplus food and builds a supply chain for saved food that connects all of the players from producer to consumer.
To expand the demand for surplus food, he makes food saving legal, convenient and professional while at the same time increasing public awareness of the problem of food waste through media and educational work. On the supply side, Raphael is building a marketplace that addresses the inefficiencies of the current food saving system. The SirPlus marketplace bundles and matches demand and supply of suplus food. SirPlus has launched a rapidly growing outlet store and online shop for saved food and is building a digital marketplace to enable not only B2C, but B2B surplus food transactions at all points of the supply chain—between farmers, producers, warehouses, retailers, producing businesses, existing food saving initiatives, food banks, and consumers.
Thereby, SirPlus allows large scale rollout of foodsaving with the aim to save 1,000,000 tons of food in 30 countries within the next 5 years. The food outlet chain and online shop as well as the digital marketplace are easily adaptable to other countries. Raphael’s strong food saving network in Europe and beyond will allow SirPlus to build an international customer base.
Each year 1.3 billion tons of food, about a third of all that is produced, is wasted globally. If food waste were a country, it would be the third biggest CO2 emitter after China and the United States, contributing 3.3 billion tons of CO2 to global emissions. Up to 50% of food is wasted in production, handling, processing and distribution. An estimated 40% of all that food waste would still be edible.
The overproduction problem is largely driven by high consumer demand standards. Due to advertising and the general disconnection of the modern consumer from food production, consumers expect flawless produce and products with a long shelf life. The consequence is that farmers have to overproduce to ensure they have enough volume that meets the high standards required from processors and retailers. That surplus food is often used for biodigestion or animal feeding, which, however, is not the most resource efficient way of using it. With food being inexpensive and with consumers living in a culture of excess, they do not question their standards and behavior. Saving food, on the contrary, is still stigmatized and associated with being poor and illegal (e.g. dumpster diving).
Even with the greater demand for saved food, there is no supply chain for it. Apart from individual industry initiatives, there is still no efficiently organized way for the food industry to distribute their food surplus to other businesses, organizations or customers at large scale.
There is a range of actors trying to address the problem of food waste. Many of them focus on creating awareness. There are also private food sharing efforts that connect households to share their leftovers among each other. Food banks save food for charitable purposes, but they cannot absorb the large supply of surplus food and often do not accept expired food due to the legal requirements for quality checks. Efforts at food saving businesses are geographically restricted and limited in scope. They most often focus on B2C distribution. The broader range of customers as well as large markets of food businesses such as distributors, restaurants, catering services or food processors are left out of the equation.
At the same time, there is a historic opportunity to scale food saving. The FAO has launched its initiative to reduce food waste by 50% within the next 10 years. The conscious consumerism movement is on the rise, and policy reforms, such as the laws against food waste in France and Italy and the liberalization of EU norms, create a need and opportunity for solutions.
Raphael’s overall goal is to reduce food waste on a significant scale by (1) creating bottom-up customer demand and (2) building an efficient supply chain.
To build consumer demand for saved food, his first step was to introduce food saving as a legal alternative to dumpster diving. In 2012, he initiated the first food saving platform to match retailers, bakeries, restaurants and small farmers with food saving volunteers. He built a trust network of accredited volunteer food savers who picked up throw-outs from super markets and distributed them among their communities, NGOs and people on the street. Within five years in German speaking countries alone, the 320,000 volunteers saved 12,000 tons from 3,500 cooperating businesses. Despite the large success, this volunteer model has its limits when it comes to scale. On the supply side, it only addresses small food businesses and on the demand side, it only reaches a niche population.
With SirPlus, Raphael wants to move food saving from a niche to mainstream by professionalizing it and making it more convenient for everyone. Therefore, Raphael established an outlet store for saved food with nationwide online delivery service, selling the food at a much lower price point than regular supermarkets while still ensuring that strict hygiene standards are met. Located on a vibrant commercial street in Berlin, the shop has already more than 500 daily customers. In its third month, the revenue of the shop reached 33,000 EUR, already exceeding its monthly expenses of the shop itself. Twenty percent of the store’s food is also donated to non-profits.
Raphael also captured that apart from offering concrete solutions, public awareness is a crucial factor to increase consumer demand for saved food. In 2010, he achieved immense public attention with his 5-year money strike to criticize the culture of excess. When launching SirPlus, he achieved massive media outreach again by conducting events such as a dinner with a 5-star-cook preparing a meal with saved food. Next, Raphael and his team will launch a 250,000 EUR advertisement campaign which they won in a contest. These efforts are complemented with their educational activities, such as sensitizing school kids and students in food saving.
Building consumer demand on the one side goes hand in hand with organizing efficient supply on the other side. With the outlet store, Raphael is building a solid base of suppliers, including farmers, intermediaries and retailers. He is also proving to suppliers and processors that customers are interested in saved food. As a next step, Raphael wants to broaden the base of suppliers and connect them among each other. Therefore, Raphael is building a digital B2B-marketplace where producers of surplus food (such as farmers) are matched with relevant business customers, such as cantines or food processors who make products out of saved food. The platform increases reliability and efficiency for all involved parties and incentivizes new actors to join the market.
Non-profit organizations such as food banks and other charities will have access to SirPlus’ innovative software free of charge, allowing them to digitize and streamline their existing operations and delivery routes, helping to simplify their processes and accelerate their impact. Raphael has talked to hundreds of industry partners about the model and is already prototyping the B2B-matching offline. He also started a research project with a university about how to incentivize businesses to make use of surplus food. He will launch the digital B2B marketplace in 2018.
The outlet store as a pilot is already proving the potential of the idea. There are 150 suppliers cooperating with SirPlus, with 10-20 new suppliers each week. Almost every day, Raphael receives e-mails from the food industry wanting to partner with SirPlus. The food providers benefit from the model as it turns their waste into economic value, being more profitable than paying for the disposal. Additionally, it creates value for their CSR. SirPlus visualizes this value through providing certificates to partners, tracking the amount of saved food and CO2 emissions. SirPlus’ business model is self-sustaining. When a food arrangement is made, SirPlus takes a percentage. Furthermore, they take fees for participation and certificates.
Within the next 2 years, Raphael plans to open 5-10 more stores across Germany, partly via social franchising. Given the enormous amounts of food waste, the market potential for growth beyond Germany is huge. It is Raphael’s goal to expand the SirPlus marketplace to other countries, building on his strong reputation and network in Europe and beyond. To offer concrete solutions to the food industry, he also plans to consult food businesses on best practices and process optimization. For instance, he aims to create recognition from regular supermarkets, so that they broadly adapt practices to save food (such as a discount corner for “ugly” fruits and vegetables). To address the policy level, Raphael intends to use SirPlus’s status and financial means to build a strong umbrella organization for food saving advocacy, bundling small initiatives that do not have the capacity for advocacy on their own. With many food saving initiatives being partners of SirPlus already, he has a strong network to start with.
It is Raphael’s nature to be very curious and empathetic regarding social and ecological problems. He started his changemaking activities in first grade when he raised money for environmental NGOs. He wasn’t a very good pupil in school, but found a way to compensate for this by contributing to the school community. For instance, he was bothered by the fact that students didn’t take responsibility for cleaning classrooms, so he would sneak into the school at night to clean and ultimately convinced the principal to put the cleaning into the students’ hands and to invest the saved money in better purposes. The system is still in place today and has saved the school Millions of Euros.
Due to the unstable economic situation of his family, Raphael was always accustomed to re-using and sharing things. Taking care of resources became part of his philosophy of life: “We’re guests on this planet, and we need to take care of it,” Raphael says. Raphael was first confronted with the problem of food waste in 2009 and decided to take immediate action. He started a five-year money strike, traveling through the world and spreading the vision of conscious consumerism and food saving. He wrote a book about his strike and talked in countless TV shows, becoming the public face for food saving in Germany.
Realizing activism wasn’t enough, Raphael started lebensmittelretten.de in 2012, the first food saving platform in Germany through which he began professionalizing the idea of food saving and building relationships with producers and retailers. Over time, he saw that the inefficiencies of the current food saving movement in Europe strongly limit its potential impact and decided to take food saving to the next level. Together with two friends, he developed the idea for SirPlus in 2016/2017. Within an incredibly short time frame, SirPlus has already reached an impressive number of customers and industry partners, proving again Raphael’s ability to drive change.