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Harnessing AI to tackle food waste

August 24, 2022
topics: Food Security
by: Samia Qaiyum
located in: United Arab Emirates
tags: Artificial intelligence, carbon footprint, Dubai, food security, food waste

It's not every day that positive news related food waste emerge out of the UAE, as the country ranks among the world's top nations for per capita waste. A Nigerian expat is slowly shifting the narrative.

It's somewhat of a lose-lose situation: between its arid land and scorching temperatures, the UAE imports 80 to 90 percent of the food it consumes, according to a 2019 report. And while rapid economic progress helped locals turn a blind eye to this level of dependency, the pandemic made it evident that the UAE’s reliance on imports is simply unsustainable.

Simultaneously, approximately 38 percent of the food prepared daily in the Emirates is wasted, and this figure rises to roughly 60 percent during the month of Ramadan.

Today, as several foodtech and agritech solutions are currently in development to tackle the issue of food security, lawmakers have pledged to halve food waste by 2030 in line with the UN's Sustainable Development Goal 12 of Responsible Consumption and Production.

And in the meantime? Meet Daniel Solomon.

A serial entrepreneur, the Nigerian expat in Dubai is on a mission to tackle environmental and societal challenges through technology solutions. To that end, he launched EroeGo at the end of 2021.

Aiming to reduce food waste, the start-up uses artificial intelligence (AI) technology to reclaim misshapen fruits and vegetables discarded by producers and delivers them to customers at a discount. Furthermore, as an impact-driven business, EroeGo provides meals to two people facing hunger for every box delivered.

Following his recognition in the Zero Waste Changemakers category at the inaugural Gulfood Zero Waste Awards, Daniel Solomon spoke with FairPlanet about promoting the beauty of ugly produce and putting sustainability into practice.

FairPlanet: EroeGo is the UAE’s first 'ugly food' delivery service. What prompted its launch?

Daniel Solomon: What slowly moved me into this venture is just really thinking about how fortunate I’ve been. The fact that I’ve always had a roof over my head and been able to buy three square meals - not just any meals, but what I actually wanted to eat - is something I’ve long reflected on.

We also get too comfortable, particularly living in Dubai. Broccoli is something I don't like eating, so I don’t eat it. And we take such things for granted while countless people don't have enough access to food.

Food is very important. If you look globally, the reason why people sometimes do what they do – whether positive or negative - is because they want to eat or feed their family. Looking back, that’s what drove me to launch something that I believe in.

I questioned what I can do to improve the inequality around food. And with the world getting hotter because of climate change, I wanted to do more than simply complain about the heat. Admittedly, I’m not like those people who choose not to eat meat - that’s their contribution. I wanted to contribute on a bigger scale, and that's how EroeGo came about, covering both the inequality and environmental side of things.

So, is it fair to say that observing Dubai’s income inequality played a role?

The issue is not just in Dubai, right? If we take Nigeria or Africa as a whole, you have some who are really rich and others who are really poor. You could be in your car, headed to your estate, and be stopped by someone asking for money. You could be in Europe and encounter someone asking people for money to buy food. It's a constant theme, but you're right - it’s easy to see the contrast between rich and poor in Dubai.

Additionally, there’s this perception that everybody in Dubai is well off, so there's a lot of surplus. As a result, we’re not too conscious about our actions overall. 

This is also connected to cultural norms, as offering food is a sign of hospitality. And when Ramadan comes around, promotions lead to people buying in excess just because food items are cheap. A lot of it gets wasted - we know the most amount of food waste happens at the household level.

Then there's the brunches we all go to, where hotels can’t really avoid ending up with surplus food. Luckily, there's a lot more regulation around sustainability in the tourism sector. Things are slowly changing, but there’s still a lot of room to grow.

"The most amount of food waste happens at the household level."

The ugly produce problem 

Can you talk us through the logistics of 'rescuing' ugly produce using AI?

For starters, we're not particularly connected with our food these days - people don't often visit farms, they don't really understand how long it takes for a piece of fruit to spring up and grow. It has led to this issue of carrots need to be of a particular shape, tomatoes need to be of a particular size. And if they're not, they're kept aside, considered unfit to be displayed and sold. This is what we call the ‘ugly’ problem.

There are also a lot of imports coming into the UAE, so because people are used to having all sorts of produce all year round, they expect things to look a certain way. As a result, even the farmers who make an effort to grow locally cannot sell produce that doesn’t look familiar.

You're then getting enormous waste from two sides: excess produce due to wholesalers importing without knowledge of who is importing what and what will get sold, as well as discarded produce due to local farmers struggling to sell misshapen produce. EroeGo, as a food-loss company, is focused on ensuring that food doesn’t unnecessarily get to the landfill by tapping into the power of technology. 

Obviously, I can't go into a lot of detail, but that guides farmers and importers based on what's in the market. And then you have different models that help provide a lot more ‘rich data’ to not only importers and farmers, but also policymakers.

We work with local farmers, taking what they can’t sell to supermarkets, as well as importers who have excess due to changes in demand or an inability to sell. We take the produce, do quality checks, and find new value for that produce in people's homes and from a business perspective.

Of course, if it cannot be consumed, it’s composted or used for animal feed, but that's the power of technology: being able to plan according to demand and provide predictive modelling to different stakeholders.

For every box delivered, EroeGo provides meals to two people facing hunger. Why was this aspect important?

It goes back to why I started. EroeGo is my second company. I ran a digital consulting agency and, back then, I tried to solve the inequality issue in a different way – by upskilling people, training them to become technical programmers. The biggest issue today is how much food we’re throwing at home.

To give you some context: the per capita waste generation in the UAE is 50 percent higher compared to that in Europe. Having lived in Dubai for almost a decade, I had to ask, "We're addressing the environmental issue, which is great, but how can we ensure we’re an impact company?"

With every box purchased, consumers know that they’re enriching someone’s life without having to look for charities to do it through. They’re also saving money and saving the planet. EroeGo does this with the help of different friends, and we will be releasing our impact data at the end of every year. 

This would then help everyone see who our partners and friends are. ShareTheMeal, for instance, is one of the avenues we could use to reach people who don't have food. We also have certain initiatives in place. If a customer needs to skip one of their deliveries, we can help them donate the produce to people in need, if they'd like.

educating all stakeholders

What obstacles have you faced most often since the launch?

I’d say it’s the mindset, the lack of awareness around the issue of food waste - this is still something that we have to overcome not only locally, but also globally.

The more we all are involved, the better, especially when you factor in food security, too. We're now talking about both what’s good for the planet and future generations. The population is only going to increase as years go by. We know that it takes a lot of water to grow food, and we also know that we’re losing water every day. And if we continue to waste food, it means we need to produce more, so the awareness aspect is crucial.

This is where the challenge arises: simply educating all stakeholders to really be involved in the food-waste movement.

"We're now talking about both what’s good for the planet and future generations."

One million tonnes of food are wasted annually in the UAE. What do you attribute this figure to?

Dubai’s extravagant brunches come to mind, but that’s less than one percent of the problem. At least you can quantify them at some point. But what about the areas we can't quantify, like the food waste that happens in homes?

There needs to be a way to distinguish between food loss and food waste. What we do pertains to food loss, diverting food from the landfill. As for food waste? A lot of it happens at home. You may end up buying a lot of foodstuff because of discounts, and it then sits on your shelves until it gets discarded because you can't finish it. Consumers should therefore be more informed about the differences between 'sell by,' 'best before,' and 'use by' dates.

Above all, people should be educated on how they can tackle the issue. If you're travelling, for example, give any excess food to your neighbours or domestic staff. There are some great companies worldwide that allow users to notify their neighbours about extra food or ingredients in order to prevent needless waste.

Elsewhere, there are retailers selling food items that are close to their expiry date. Additionally, I recommend eating seasonal and farm-to-fork as much as possible. There are several ways to go about it, but we all must work together. We, as individuals, have to be more conscious about our actions; farmers and importers will inevitably follow suit.

Image by EroeGo

Article written by:
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Samia Qaiyum
Author
United Arab Emirates
Daniel Solomon.
Daniel Solomon.
© Samia Qaiyum
Rooted in reducing food waste, the start-up uses artificial intelligence to reclaim the misshapen fruits and vegetables discarded by producers and delivers them to customers at a discount.
Rooted in reducing food waste, the start-up uses artificial intelligence to reclaim the misshapen fruits and vegetables discarded by producers and delivers them to customers at a discount.
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