Olio: Time for a food sharing revolution


Sharing is all the rage these days. Homes, cars, driveways, even surfboards – you name it, people are doing it. Does the same go for food? For thousands of years throughout history, yes, but less so in modern days. At OLIO we think it’s time to reverse that trend, because food waste is too big a problem to ignore.

No less than a third of all the world’s food is wasted, while households in the UK alone bin over £12bn of edible food every year. These astounding numbers highlight an issue that is bad for families – households throw away 20% of their weekly shop on average, at a cost of £700 per year; for businesses – failing to sell their edible food can be costly for local stores; for the environment – food waste is the world’s third largest greenhouse gas emitter after the USA and China; and for society – good food goes uneaten while half a million people in the UK used a food bank last year.

Our response is a free app connecting neighbours with each other and with local independent shops to share their edible surplus food. This could be food nearing its sell-by date in stores, spare produce from the allotment, goodies from an amateur baker, or the groceries in your fridge when you go away. Users simply snap a picture of their items and post them on OLIO for their neighbour to collect.

The inspiration to launch OLIO was about more than the startling figures above. It came from our personal experiences as children in food-growing families and now adults who can’t bear to see food end up in the bin. Yet before embarking on the mission, we needed to check that others agreed. The answer was a resounding ‘yes’. An OLIO/YouGov poll of 1,610 people revealed that 86% of respondents were ‘bothered’ by throwing away their edible food, while two-thirds felt that households are primarily responsible for addressing the problem of food waste. Maybe we were onto something.

Next up it was important to validate the idea that people would share and collect food as we’d hoped, so we created a WhatsApp trial among 12 early adopters. Come the end of that successful two-week experiment, we were convinced, and set about building the product. In July this year, OLIO launched in the App Store and on Google Play in a pocket of North London. Before long, a grass roots mix of local individuals and merchants were sharing their surplus food via our platform and a ‘word-of-mouth’ phenomenon quickly took hold. After hosting a series of quirky events and gaining coverage across a range of media, it was exhilarating to watch OLIO climb to the top of the UK App Store – there was our little start-up trending at number 1 for over 24 hours! The whirlwind of activity then saw OLIO named Tech City News’ ‘download of the week’, before expanding into Hackney, Camden, Islington and the rest of Haringey – the borough where it all began.

Of course it is early days and we have a long way to go to realise our vision of bringing OLIO to communities across London, the wider UK and cities around the world. We’re also learning as we go. While people have loved connecting with their neighbours, one lesson is that not everyone on OLIO necessarily wants someone knocking on the door, so we’ve introduced Drop Boxes in local stores, allowing people to deposit the items there and they can be collected by the neighbour at a time convenient for them. No doubt that will be one of many more lessons on the OLIO journey!

Finally, we’re grateful for the opportunity to contribute to a magazine for ‘compassionate business’, since we’d like to think that neatly captures what we’re about too. By coupling mobile technology with engaged communities in a sharing economy, our ambition is to tackle what is a difficult social problem with a simple social app.