From the pages of Produce Business UK
Oddbox, the UK social enterprise that tackles pre-farm gate food waste, is seeking to partner with additional suppliers looking to sell their misshapen or surplus fresh fruits and vegetables. Following a successful start in London, the firm is embarking on a national expansion and wants more growers, importers, packers and retailers to get involved. PBUK speaks with Co-Founder Emilie Vanpoperinghe, who will be a speaker during the Educational Sessions at The London Produce Show and Conference June 6, to discover the opportunities and advantages of concepts like Oddbox.
Considering more than 10 million tons of food, worth £17 billion, is wasted in the UK every year, according to WRAP, and 3m tons of produce, worth £4bn, is wasted before it even leaves the farm, Oddbox was set up in June 2016 to help tackle the crisis.
By 2022, its goal is to capture 5% (500,000 tons) of the pre-farm gate produce waste (fruit and vegetables lost or wasted before they leave the farm) in the UK and the EU via innovative solutions that provide a social, environmental and commercial benefit for all involved.
So far, Oddbox has tallied up a network of more than 50 suppliers based within 200 miles of London, including some of the biggest names in the UK produce industry, such as G’s Fresh, Produce World and Thanet Earth, to buy produce direct from source that is either surplus or doesn't meet supermarket specifications.
The company packs close to 5,000 small, medium and large boxes a week at its facility in South London. It serves 8,000 consumers at home and at work in the Greater London area, who receive an ever-changing variety of quality fruits and/or vegetables delivered direct and free of charge.
Oddbox claims its suppliers obtain a fair price, while its customers pay at least 30% less than similar box schemes. To ensure there is zero waste, any unused produce is donated to Oddbox’s charity partners City Harvest and the Felix Foundation to feed those in need.
Ultimately, the objective is much bigger says Vanpoperinghe, who set up Oddbox with husband Deepak Ravindran.
“We’re the only veg box for wonky and surplus produce, and we focus on making opportunities from produce that’s already been grown, rather than asking producers to grow for us,” she explains. “As we expand, our intention is to have a larger and larger impact.
“Any profit we make is reinvested in to the business to be able to grow and rescue more produce. We want to help solve the food waste crisis, to ensure that any produce that’s grown finds a home, and to help people to reduce their impact on the environment.”
At first, Vanpoperinghe and Ravindran handled the packing and deliveries themselves, but Oddbox now comprises a 10-strong office team, supported by 15-20 packers. The firm also works with a logistics company that coordinates 10-15 drivers.
Although Oddbox is growing rapidly, Vanpoperinghe accepts that the business is still quite small at present.
“Just last year  we grew by over 300% in terms of our customer base, and in the first quarter of this year we’ve grown 120%,” she reveals. “But we take only a minute proportion of the food wasted in the UK.
“We currently cover 60% of Greater London. The plan is to serve all of London and to go nationwide next year.
“We’ve got a small packhouse in Mitcham that we operate ourselves, and we’re looking at outsourcing some of the packing [to accommodate the expansion]. We’re in discussions with co-packers currently.”
Looking for partners
To support its ambitions, Oddbox urges any interested grower, importer, packer and even retailer to get in touch with the company to discover how they can get on board.
“We aim to provide a solution that’s beneficial to everyone to solve the issue of food waste,” Vanpoperinghe notes.
“For us, that means looking at partnering. We believe that not one player in the sector will solve the whole issue alone. It requires partnerships and that means businesses, government, NGOs, and all the different players in the sector coming together.”
For retailers, while Oddbox already works with some of the biggest produce suppliers to the UK’s supermarkets, Vanpoperinghe says opportunities remain.
“Retailers can contact us and we’d be happy to discuss any partnerships,” she explains. “Similarly, we could explore selling our boxes online.”
For suppliers, meanwhile, Oddbox claims to offer a stable yet flexible route to market for any produce they are unable to sell.
“We don’t ask growers to grow anything for us; we take what’s available and we make opportunities from that,” Vanpoperinghe explains. “We provide a solution for produce that would potentially go to waste; from either being left in the field or sent for processing, to the wholesale market or to landfill.
“The fact that we’re a subscription-based business means we can give suppliers a forecast in advance. At the same time, we change the composition of the boxes based on what produce we have. We can offer flexibility that the supermarkets cannot because they need availability all year round.”
For example, Oddbox works with a big banana importer in the UK. One week it might buy bananas that are singles, and the next it might purchase a whole box of bananas at different levels of maturity.
“For us, it’s fine to have that difference,” points out Vanpoperinghe. “We compile all the produce from all of our suppliers at our packhouse and divide them between our boxes. The composition changes week on week.”
On top of that, to help even more food find a home, Oddbox has begun to offer ‘add-ons’ for customers to purchase in addition to their usual box.
“If a supplier has an excess of something but not enough for us to put into all the boxes, we offer it as a flash sale,” notes Vanpoperinghe. “Two weeks ago we had some wild garlic, and this week we have some fruit juices made from wonky and surplus veg.”
Crucially, Oddbox discusses and agrees on a fair price that at least covers the supplier’s costs and with some margin.
“It’s perfectly good produce and there is no reason why it can’t be sold,” Vanpoperinghe states. “We are offering a way to sell this produce at a fair price. Even selling to the wholesale market presents so much uncertainty for a supplier in terms of whether they will sell that produce or not, and at what price.”
Describing Oddbox as a complementary route to market, Vanpoperinghe says the company has garnered much interest since appearing at Fruit Logistica 2019 but remains in search of new suppliers.
“As we are growing rapidly, we are always looking for new suppliers,” she comments. “We would set up a call, visit your facility and explain what we require in terms of the produce.”
Importantly, Vanpoperinghe says Oddbox’s specifications are broad, and relate only to the actual quality of the produce.
“It needs to be fresh,” she explains. “We don’t want anything which has rot, any internal damage, or a shorter shelf-life.”
Having been voted in January as the ‘best veg box in the UK’ by The Independent, it appears that Oddbox is on the right track.
“The review was a really big achievement,” Vanpoperinghe says. “They reviewed nine boxes, including Riverford and Abel & Cole. It shows that consumers are really happy with us; we also have a very good retention rate.
“We’ve got some really good reviews,” she continues. “We have a 9.7 out of 10 score on Trustpilot. People love the fact that they are able to reduce their impact on the planet, and that they can do it in an easy and convenient way because eating is part of our daily life.”
In a further nod to environmental sustainability, Oddbox uses packaging that is 100% recyclable or degradable, and re-uses or recycles its boxes. Deliveries are made overnight to reduce the impact of the scheme.
“It’s faster to deliver at night, so our vans are on the road less,” notes Vanpoperinghe. “It’s a lot more efficient, the carbon emissions are lower and it’s convenient for customers. We’re also looking into electric vans.”
Each box contains a letter to explain from where the produce inside was sourced, and why it was rejected from its usual route to market. Oddbox also provides tips and recipes on how to use the produce to help customers to avoid wasting anything in their homes.
“Customers are notified about the contents of their box a week in advance to help them to meal plan,” explains Vanpoperinghe. “Many people say it’s like Christmas every week, and that their children run to the door to open the box! It’s also a good way for parents to teach their children about produce, to show them how they grow and what’s in season.”
To date, Oddbox claims to have saved 523,070 kilograms (kg) of fresh produce, 784,605kg of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent), and donated 36,615kg to charity, which would translate in to some 276,076 meals.
Register here to attend the three-day event.