FoodCloud revolutionised Ireland's response to food waste - now its founder wants to go further
"I make a terrible dinner guest," says Aoibheann O'Brien.
"Or an awkward person to go out to dinner with.
"If you leave something on your plate too long, well... People have to hide if they have surplus food."
Being tricky to eat with won't necessarily make you the most popular person in a room but Aoibheann has good reason for her disposition.
She is one of the founders of FoodCloud, an organisation that aims to tackle Ireland's food waste problem.
It connects food surplus with charities that need it - and it's no exaggeration to say that it has revolutionised how we make use of food in Ireland.
The idea came about in 2012 when Aoibheann and her co-founder Iseult Ward met at an event at Trinity.
Iseult was an undergrad and Aoibheann had just returned from London where she worked in environmental and social risk in investment banking; "that’s where my passion for sustainability came from."
She had noticed that there were food surplus initiatives in the UK capital but nothing similar here.
The pair decided to work on a local, tech-based solution to a worldwide problem and FoodCloud was born.
A local solution with global impact
Thirty per cent of the food that’s produced globally is wasted, Aoibheann tells us.
Here in Ireland, it means over one million tonnes of food goes into the bin each year - and many millions more beyond these shores.
This contributes to everything from greenhouse gas emissions to stress on water systems and biodiversity.
The scale of the issue can leave many of us at a loss for what to do.
"For us, the issue of climate change is very big," Aoibheann says.
"As an individual it’s hard to know what to do; you might get a KeepCup or whatever.
"What we were really excited about is that you can bring together a retail manager and a volunteer with a charity and they can work together to solve each other’s problems at a local level and have a global impact."
The project began with a single Tesco store on Dublin's Talbot Street in late 2013.
In just over five years, FoodCloud now works with all Tesco, Lidl and Aldi stores in Ireland and Tesco and Waitrose in the UK to redistribute surplus food.
It also operates warehouses in Cork, Dublin and Galway, allowing it to link up with others in the food chain like farmers, manufacturers and distributors.
The food goes to 7,500 charities across Britain and Ireland. Added up, it means that FoodCloud has helped to save 25 million meals from going to waste.
"It could be anyone from Clonmel Soup Kitchen to MidWest Simon to the Boyle Family Resource Centre; really any charity that is using food to support people in the community."
The jump from finance employee to entrepreneur might sound like a big one but Aoibheann says her passion for the cause meant she was determined to succeed.
Lots of the skills she gleaned during her time in banking stood to her, she says, and her young age (Aoibheann was 26 when FoodCloud began, Iseult just 21) was never an issue.
"It was 2012, 2013 and people were really responsive to positive action," she says.
"It wasn’t a great time economically and (the idea) was received very positively.
"We had the enthusiasm, we had the idea and the skills and surrounded ourselves by people who could support us."
"We’d love for Ireland to be a leader."
There is also a growing understanding in Ireland of just how problematic surplus food is, she adds.
Looking ahead, FoodCloud wants to capitalise on this.
One of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals is around food waste, she tells us.
Aoibheann is aiming for her organisation to help put Ireland, a small nation recognised around the world for our food, to the front of the pack in meeting this goal.
"We’d love for Ireland to be a leader in creating solutions for surplus food.
"As a country we’re putting ourselves forward as a sustainable food producer and really we do think that addressing the issue of food waste needs to be part of that conversation.
"There’s always room for more innovation."
She also sees "huge potential" for FoodCloud's technology to be used around the world.
They are currently working with a non-profit organisation in Poland and the Czech Republic to roll out their system for redistributing food there, with plans to bring the technology to more countries in the years to come.
Reflecting on all that she has achieved with FoodCloud over the years, what advice would she give her younger self?
"It’s a marathon not a sprint," she says.
"You can ride the highs and the lows very personally... you learn over time that these things come and go.
The other thing, she adds, is to "just go for it" and pursue your passion.
"We’ve gotten so much by going on this unconventional career path that would be valuable wherever it takes us."
Aoibheann O'Brien is today speaking at the National Conference for Project Managers in Fota Island Resort.
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