Tessa Clarke

Profit with purpose

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Published: 05/11/2021

Updated date: 06/10/2023

Tessa Clarke, co-founder & CEO of Olio, is tackling one of the worlds chronic environmental problems - food waste. Around a third of all food produced for human consumption goes to waste, equivalent to 1 trillion dollars-worth. If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest source of human carbon emissions.

But this isn’t the only problem. At a time when clean water is becoming scarce, 25% of the world’s fresh water supply is used to grow food that is never eaten. The World Wildlife Fund says that by 2025, on current rates of consumption, two-thirds of the world’s population may face water shortages. Equally, food production is also a major threat to the world’s ecosystems and biodiversity. An area larger than China is used to grow food that is never eaten.

Food is unevenly distributed: there 800m people across the globe without enough food to live on. Even in the UK, one million people regularly access food banks. This is a vast problem with multiple drivers, but Tessa Clarke decided to tackle it according to Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s famous mantra “how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

How it started

For Tessa, it started during her time as a management consultant. She was packing up after an assignment in Switzerland and found she wanted to give away a lot of unwanted food. It proved surprisingly difficult and she asked herself ‘why isn’t there an app for this?’.

She already had experience of working with small businesses. She’d been managing director of Emap’s Planet Retail and then a director of ecommerce for Dyson, before being bought in to turn around troubled consumer loans group Wonga. She’d already met her business partner, Saasha Celestial-One, during their time at Stanford Business School. The stars were aligned.

First, they had to confirm that the problem was as big as they thought it was. It turned out to be far bigger than they had ever imagined: Tessa says what they found “truly shocked and horrified us.” As climate change continues, she says, “we are about to pivot from a world where everyone has enough to eat, to one where we no longer have enough food for everyone. We have 2.2 billion people joining the planet by 2050. This is also a massive driver of the climate crisis.”

It also turned out that people hated throwing away food every bit as much as she did - one in three were ‘physically pained’ by throwing away food. However, it was a big step from not liking waste to sharing that food with a stranger. A two-week experiment with 12 volunteers and a WhatApp group suggested that, after some initial reluctance, they would share: “This gave us the confidence to think this might fly,” Tessa adds.

The pair found an agent in Bristol who gave them reduced day rates in exchange for a share in the company. The app came together with remarkable speed, launching in just five months and connecting those with surplus food to those who need it, for free. Even the early investment was relatively straightforward, with Tessa finding support from investors who knew and trusted the founders, and backed the concept. From five postcodes in North London in 2015, Olio now has five million users across 49 countries.

How it’s going

After this early success, it has not all been plain-sailing, admits Tessa. Funding has been tough, with Olio sitting outside the main ‘hot’ sectors such as crypto, food delivery or Fintech. She says: “Olio is a Tech for Good, so there's immediately much less capital.”

Similarly, the business itself has had challenges, which have required creative solutions. Tessa says: “The first one was how to grow and scale with no marketing budget. We took our original 12 people and created an ambassador programme. We have broadened this out over time and it is now 50,000 strong. We give our ambassadors posters, letters, flyers and they do guerrilla marketing for us. It has proved a high quality, low cost route to market.”

Another challenge is that many of the early adopters didn’t generate a lot of food waste, precisely because they cared about it so much. Tessa solved the problem by branching out to form partnerships with local businesses. Local ‘Food Waste Heroes’ collect unsold food from these businesses and add it to the app. This is now the source of around half of Olio’s food. Big name brands such as Pret-a-Manger, Tesco, Iceland and Compass now pay for Olio to collect unsold food and distribute it to the local community.

The pandemic was initially a worrying moment because the app relies on people connecting. However, Tessa said that after the early problems, Olio saw “hockey stick growth” as people were thrown back on their local community. It has also made people reappraise their relationship with the planet, which has generated growth.

Future Plans

Olio has achieved some significant milestones. Since launch Olio have shared 130 million portions of food and 10 million household items have been given away and 500 million car miles off the road, has saved 20 billion litres of water and has prevented 30,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions.

Tessa isn’t done yet. She says they have the ambition of a Silicon Valley business – they want one billion people to be using Olio within the next 10 years – but combining profit with purpose: “For too long, we’ve had this dichotomy between charities that do good but aren’t scalable, and businesses that are scalable, but have questionable impact on communities and the environment. We are part of new paradigm ‘profit with purpose’.”

She has no regrets: “The only one, perhaps, is that I didn’t do it sooner. It’s been a transformational experience to be working on something that the world needs