Don’t be afraid

Iseult Ward and her part­ner Aoib­heann O’Brien have built up an im­pres­sive food re- dis­tri­bu­tion busi­ness

The Irish Times Magazine - - SPONSORED -

Aquote from the 16th- cen­tury philoso­pher Michel De Mon­taigne i s the maxim by which Iseult Ward lives. “‘ There were many ter­ri­ble things in my life, and most of them never hap­pened’. My mother was al­ways say­ing it and it made an im­pact on me,” she says. “It means don’t be afraid. We have a ten­dency not to take the next step be­cause we have a fear of some­thing, and that fear can paral­yse us. But if you don’t try, you’ll never know,” she says.

If there’s one thing Ward can never be ac­cused of, it’s not try­ing. She is a tech­nol­o­gist, a busi­ness­woman and, above all, a com­mit­ted so­cial en­trepreneur – and all at the same time.

With co- founder Aoib­heann O’Brien she set up so­cial en­ter­prise FoodCloud in Oc­to­ber 2013. At its heart is an app that con­nects busi­nesses that have too much food with char­i­ties work­ing in com­mu­ni­ties that have too lit­tle.

From a stand­ing start, they have built FoodCloud to a point where it takes food from 2,500 su­per­mar­kets and 100 food in­dus­try part­ners across Ire­land and, since last year, the UK too. In one month alone, it dis­trib­utes 1.5 mil­lion ‘ meal equiv­a­lents’ to those in need, rep­re­sent­ing a sav­ing of ¤ 2 mil­lion for the 6,000- plus char­i­ties that FoodCloud sup­ports.

The app is a highly in­no­va­tive so­lu­tion to the age- old prob­lem of food poverty. Its ge­n­e­sis was a chance meet­ing be­tween Ward and O’Brien at a start- up event for so­cial en­trepreneurs. Both were stu­dents at Trin­ity Col­lege Dublin at the time – Ward study­ing busi­ness and eco­nom­ics and O’Brien en­vi­ron­men­tal science.

“What I liked about Aoib­heann from the start was the fact that she had the same ‘ doer’ at­ti­tude as me,” says Ward. They shared an in­ter­est in the elim­i­na­tion of food waste too.

“It was while I was study­ing busi­ness at col­lege that I first came across the idea that you could cre­ate a com­mer­cially vi­able busi­ness which puts peo­ple and com­mu­ni­ties first,” she says.

“The fact that I started col­lege just af­ter the eco­nomic crash had taken place had an im­pact on me too. I could see how peo­ple were suf­fer­ing, how char­i­ties were re­source- stretched as a re­sult and how they were also hav­ing their fund­ing cut.”

The pair got to work de­vel­op­ing their re­tail app. Put sim­ply, it al­lows a busi­ness to up­load de­tails of any sur­plus food it has – typ­i­cally fresh pro­duce like fruit, veg and baked goods – and FoodCloud sends out an alert to char­i­ties that need it.

Last year, FoodCloud ex­panded its operations with the cre­ation of three FoodCloud Hubs, cen­tral dis­tri­bu­tion ware­houses in Dublin, Gal­way and Cork. These are de­signed t o han­dle large- scale quan­ti­ties of food di­rect from man­u­fac­tur­ers and pro­duc­ers.

“The quan­ti­ties in­volved in the hubs would sim­ply be too large for our char­ity part­ners to han­dle and dis­trib­ute, so we break them down and re­dis­tribute them.”

In the past, such food would sim­ply have gone to waste, even though it is per­fectly fresh. “It could be the re­sult of a mis­la­belling sit­u­a­tion, where some­thing has a pound sign on the pack­ag­ing in­stead of a euro one. Or it could be short- dated stock. Su­per­mar­kets want a prod­uct to come in with a two- week shelf life and so, if it only has 13 days left, they won’t take it.”

By con­stantly in­no­vat­ing and find­ing new ways to source and elim­i­nate food waste in this way, the en­ter­prise has grown sub­stan­tially in just a few years. To­day, FoodCloud em­ploys 44 peo­ple on a full- time ba­sis, and man­ages a fur­ther team of 200 vol­un­teers. “I am proud of what we’ve achieved,” she says.

Cen­tral to that achieve­ment has been a strate­gic ap­proach to seek­ing out guid­ance from oth­ers more ex­pe­ri­enced than her. “Hav­ing peo­ple you can turn to for ad­vice is re­ally im­por­tant. At FoodCloud we have a fan­tas­tic vol­un­tary board of direc­tors who are a ter­rific re­source for us. No­body knows every­thing, so you need to sur­round your­self with good peo­ple.”

Managing growth in the not- for- profit sec­tor is par­tic­u­larly chal­leng­ing. FoodCloud’s re­tail part­ners pay to use the app, which cov­ers the so­cial en­ter­prise’s op­er­at­ing costs. But fund­ing av­enues, such as an­gel in­vest­ment and ven­ture cap­i­tal, which are tra­di­tion­ally used to help a busi­ness to scale up, are closed off to it. FoodCloud has to rely on phi­lan­thropy to help it grow.

But while Ward’s pro­fes­sional life there­fore in­volves the pur­suit of money, in her per­sonal life she es­chews it. “Money is not a mo­ti­va­tor for me. You wouldn’t set up a char­ity if it was. My pri­or­ity is to do some­thing I’m pas­sion­ate about and that I feel is hav­ing a pos­i­tive im­pact. As far as I’m con­cerned, happy and healthy is what mat­ters.”

PHO­TO­GRAPH: NAOISE CULHANE

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