SINGAPORE — Singapore has a shameful problem of food waste. According to the NEA, food waste accounts for about 11 per cent of the total waste generated in Singapore and has grown by around 20 per cent over the last ten years. In 2019, we generated food waste equivalent to two bowls of rice per person per day or the equivalent of 51,000 double-deckers. It’s a frustrating first-world problem, borne out of our incessant propensity to consume without thought and discard without care.
Stand outside any bakery at the close of the day. You can see this problem in action as workers throw perfectly good and edible products into black rubbish bags, chucking them aside as if it’s an acceptable norm in the F&B industry. It doesn’t help matters that our food, both raw and cooked, is highly affordable, which makes discarding it less an issue of economics, and more a solution to excessive capitalism.
Enter the queen of food waste reduction, Jennifer Widjaja. Unlike many of us who sit around and lament the problem of food waste, Jennifer took to the streets, talking to consumers, organising focus groups, and creating surveys, all in a bid to understand better how this problem can be solved.
The solution? Just Dabao, a social impact enterprise that aims to connect consumers like me who care about food waste with F&B purveyors keen to make a measurable difference in this realm. Just Dabao aims to redistribute unsold surplus food by connecting last-minute consumers with eateries that sell their surplus food at a steep 50 per cent to 70 per cent discounts.
Nurzatiman: How would you describe what you do to someone you're meeting for the first time?
Jennifer Widjaja: I am a food waste warrior! I actively try to reduce food waste, and I help others do their bit through my platform, Just Dabao. The whole concept of the social impact enterprise centres around remodelling sustainability as people's first choice without compromising their lifestyle. I have always believed that incentivising is better than enforcing.
With Just Dabao, the goal was to pair the logistical challenges of eliminating food waste with an incentive structure that will encourage consumers to think about the social impact that food wastage has on their environment. It also helps F&B owners on the platform connect with consumers willing to purchase food that may otherwise simply go to waste. And with the uncertain times F&B owners are facing now, every avenue of revenue helps.
What was the inspiration behind the creation and founding of Just Dabao?
During the Circuit Breaker in 2020, it broke my heart to see some of my favourite eateries shutter due to something entirely beyond their control. The ones that remain, on the other hand, are economically burdened. The F&B industry was especially hit hard, reporting a year-on-year loss of almost 30 per cent in Q3 of 2020.
That’s when I started doing some research on the F&B scene and noticed the rampant food waste problem in Singapore—we waste a lot of food every year. When I found out that some of the food thrown out is perfectly edible, I made it my mission to find out why.
I started talking to consumers, ran focus groups, and created surveys to understand the perception of surplus food. In the end, I discovered that edible food waste is mainly a logistics issue and a wholly avoidable one at that. The truth is, if and when there is food available, there will be consumers willing to get them. I just needed to connect them in a viable manner.
Nevertheless, starting a new concept is always an uphill task. I was lost, confused and at the moment when I almost gave up, this video helped me see things a bit differently. Before the video, I was stuck in the delivery model but soon realised that the cost economics don’t seem to be working. The MIT Media lab experiment in the video helped seed the idea that unfolded the path to the Just Dabao model.
Have you always been a fervent crusader of food waste, or has it been a belief inculcated in you since young?
Prior to Just Dabao, I worked with successful start-ups in the e-commerce industry in Indonesia and a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation-backed social enterprise start-up in healthcare. Moreover, I have previously worked in large corporations such as P&G and Bloomberg. As you can tell, I did not have the depth of experience in the sustainable industry nor the right connections to head a start-up in the industry.
Nevertheless, reducing food waste was a belief that was subconsciously ingrained in my mind since young. It was always something that I have always wanted to pursue but never really had a concrete plan—until now.
What is the biggest misunderstanding people have about the work that Just Dabao does?
Many people have this misconception that surplus food is not of good quality or safe to eat. This is untrue—surplus food can be as delicious as regular food. We even did a blind tasting video to test our theory, and the result was encouraging and enlightening.
Also, another common misconception we get is that surplus food refers only to the leftover food, which is unsold at the end of the day. If we dig deeper into the umbrella of surplus food, we will notice that the reason goes beyond that. Each food we list on the platform has a unique story behind them. Some are there because of inventory issues, some are there because of cosmetic defects, while some are there because of the cancellation of events. The reasons are endless and, unfortunately, a lot more common than we think.
One thing for sure is that all of the food on our platform is perfectly edible and amazingly yummy. The reviews on our page speak volumes about how happy customers were with the quality of food they have bought through the Just Dabao platform.
What do you imagine success of Just Dabao to look like, and what are your next steps once that marker has been reached?
Success would be when Just Dabao helps people understand that leading a sustainable lifestyle need not be expensive or inconvenient and it's for everyone. Another marker would be F&B owners that are motivated and make conscious business decisions to be more sustainable and achieve zero waste in the most sustainable and rewarding way.
Once the market is reached, I want to look at other areas in F&B where I can make a positive and measurable impact—especially the hawker uncles and aunties who inspired me to start this. Also, I would like to eventually expand to other stages of the supply chain where edible food is thrown away.
When you look at the state of F&B in Singapore today, what is the one thing that gives you hope?
It’s the fascinating people of Singapore.
There were times when I had almost given up on my idea because no F&B merchant that I was reaching out to was willing to sign up to the platform. But I pushed through, being persistent after multiple rejections for two months straight. Surprisingly, the first merchant on our platform was a young chef who approached us. His girlfriend showed him our Instagram page, and that was how he knew about us. At a time when no one was ready, he was prepared to onboard.
Similarly, in the initial days of our launch, when we had just one or two merchants, the people of Singapore who put their faith in my mission purchased the products and were very forgiving of the initial shortcomings of my business. They were willing to help out by giving constructive and honest feedback and spreading the word.
Even today, we are supported by amazing people who help spread the word—owners of Facebook groups, writers at media channels, and influencers who love and believe in our mission. Being surrounded by such incredible people gives me immense hope and pushes me to do more and do better every day.
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