Trailblazers in Technology: Meet the women who are solving Ireland’s food waste problem
28th Dec 2019
Welcome to our Trailblazers in Technology series, in partnership with Samsung. Here we’ll profile six powerhouse women dominating not just the technology world, but their chosen area of profession. Together with Samsung, IMAGE is serious about championing female entrepreneurs, businesswomen and those who take risks everyday to reap the benefits of success. Buckle up as we introduce you to six leading professional women who are doing it not just for themselves, but for women everywhere. This week we profile Iseult Ward and Aoibheann O’Brien, the co-founders of FoodCloud.
It started as a student project. Six years later and FoodCloud, a social enterprise that tackles the food waste problem, has redistributed the equivalent of 65 million meals to 9,500 charitable groups across Ireland and the UK.
The idea for FoodCloud came about when Iseult Ward and Aoibheann O’Brien were students at Trinity College, Dublin. The pair met at a social enterprise evening in 2012 and soon got talking about food waste. Ireland was wasting millions of tonnes of food each year while people went hungry, and they wondered if they could solve this problem with a technology system that connected surplus food with people in need.
Their conversation developed into a business plan and, before long, they launched a pilot project with a small café and bakery. The trouble is that it was too small. “It wasn’t quite suitable for charities to use their resources to travel to collect a relatively small amount of food,” explains Aoibheann. “And talking to charities, we realised that they wanted food that they would be buying from the retailer anyway.
“We realised that the biggest impact we could have would be in connecting retailers with charities. That’s what led us to approach the retail sector and there was a recognition that there was surplus food at the end of every day in the retail environment and there was a need for a solution.”
Their “big break”, as Aoibheann puts it, came when Tesco signed up with one store in inner city Dublin. “From there the momentum grew,” she says. “We expanded with Tesco into the rest of Ireland and the other Irish retailers followed suit and that led to international extension.”
FoodCloud has since donated 10 million meals through the Tesco Surplus Food Donations programme and established a network of warehouses in Dublin, Galway and Cork. They have 55 employees, a team of over 1000 volunteers and a global reputation as a leading social enterprise.
Iseult made TIME magazine’s ‘Next Generation Leaders’ list in 2014 and Forbes’ ‘30 under 30 Europe’ list in 2017, while FoodCloud received the overall IMAGE Businesswoman of the Year Award in 2017 and the Irish Red Cross Innovation for Change Award in 2018.
Looking back, Iseult says they were extremely fortunate to have had access to support, mentorship and financial contributions during every stage of the journey. In the early days they were part of the Trinity LaunchBox accelerator programme for student start-ups. In later years, they were part of Going for Growth, an Irish accelerator programme for female entrepreneurs.
“Those networks are invaluable,” says Aoibheann, “so while there is a lot of work to be done in supporting and encouraging female entrepreneurs, what we have found, in an Irish context, is that female entrepreneurs are very supportive of other female entrepreneurs.”
And entrepreneurs have to support each other, says Iseult — especially if they’re working together. “We have complementary skills which have had to evolve a lot over the last few years,” she says. “The most valuable thing really has been the fact that there are two of us. I can only imagine how lonely and challenging the journey can be as a sole founder.
“And when you look at a journey that spans over a number of years, the most important thing for us is to be in a position to support each other on that journey.”
Still, that doesn’t mean they always agree on the nitty-gritty details. “We can have conversations where we challenge each other but we’re both very committed to the organisation’s mission and vision and I think when you have that as a foundation, any challenging conversation is a lot easier to navigate through”
Aoibheann agrees: “When you have to make sacrifices or difficult discussions, it’s not about what’s best for our relationship but what’s best for FoodCloud — so we leave the personalities and egos out of it and think about what’s best for increasing our impact.”
Follow the Trailblazers in Technology series, in partnership with Samsung, on social with #IMAGETrailblazers. IMAGE has long been a champion of women in business, as seen in our Businesswoman of the Year, Business Summit and Beauty of Business pillars. In Samsung, we found the perfect partner to champion women in tech. For the last two years, we’ve ran the hugely successful The Pitch competition, where a small enterprise has the opportunity to win €100,000 worth of high-tech Samsung products to propel their business to the next level. For more on The Pitch read here.