DUBAI - Tackling food waste is one of the most effective ways to reduce costs and carbon emissions, and keep global warming in check. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) 2011 assessment estimated the total carbon footprint of global food wastage at eq 4.4 GtCO2 per year, with the total cost of greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to $411 billion annually, and the 2012 market value of food products lost or wasted at $936 billion.
These numbers are increasingly being taken seriously by the United Arab Emirates’ hospitality industry, which is responsible for an enormous amount of food waste from occasions such as feast-like iftar buffets during Ramadan and lavish weekly brunches throughout the year.
Food waste in the UAE is estimated at 197 kilograms per person per year, almost double that of Europe and North America, which ranges from 95kg to 115kg, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.
This costs the UAE economy a staggering 13 billion dirhams ($3.5 billion) per year, according to London-based tech firm Winnow, which specialises in food waste management.
Many hotels and restaurants in the country are now exploring different options, from tech solutions by Winnow, which helps chefs run more sustainable and profitable kitchens, to solutions like BonApp, a UAE-based food tech start-up founded by Scandinavian trio Erika Daintry, Malin Raman Delin and Alice Kaboli.
“The problem is that hotels [think they] still need to have lavish buffets in order for some people to enjoy, because the mentality is you want to see a lot of good food,” BonApp's Delin told Salaam Gateway
BonApp helps cafés and restaurants minimise their food waste by selling surplus items on the app at discounts ranging from 30 to 50 percent. Customers can opt to pick up, dine-in or have the food delivered.
“I’ve been living in the UAE for almost seven years and had been visiting hotels and seeing huge buffets that we’re not used to seeing in Europe for example - they’re not as lavish. We started asking what’s happening with all this food at the end of the day, and we got the same answer everywhere – ‘we throw it away’,” said Delin.
“When we said we wanted to find a commercial, win-win solution for them, we were faced with many questions, such as ‘will customers think we’re selling old food? and ‘what if they get sick?’.
It took the founders almost a year to convince the market of BonApp’s business model and explain that the food is fresh - whether a customer goes to the store without the app and buys something for 100 percent of the price, or whether they use the app and get it for half the price.
“It’s all about pushing sales; that was a key differentiator. Even though it’s surplus food, it hasn’t expired yet. But if you don’t sell it on time, it will expire. So it was about getting people to understand that it isn’t old food,” said Delin.
Since its launch in February 2018, BonApp has been downloaded more than 1,000 times and has helped to save 10,000 meals, or three tonnes of food, from ending up in landfills.
Today, the start-up works with 150 food providers in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, mostly cafes, but the founders plan to work with hotels too, because that’s where the largest amount of food waste happens.
“Hopefully in the summer we’re going to partner with some hotels and we’re also looking to partner with grocery stores as a third step.”
In addition, BonApp has been working with software company Winnow to exchange ideas on how to cut food waste.
Winnow’s Waste Monitor is increasingly being used in UAE hotels. The system enables culinary teams to track what food is thrown away so they can identify areas for reducing their food waste.
One iconic establishment in the UAE, the Armani Hotel Dubai, started using Winnow’s technology in March 2018. It estimates that using the technology has helped it prevent 117,000 meals from being thrown away, resulting in a 47 percent reduction in food waste. This translates to yearly savings of 148,000 dirhams ($40,000).
The luxury hotel’s food waste recycling machine dries leftovers from buffets and converts them into compost soil for use on farms and landscaped areas.
Another establishment, midscale brand Rove Hotels, has also benefitted from using Winnow at their City Centre property. Since implementing the technology in November 2018, the hotel has cut food waste by 40 percent. As part of its sustainability push, Rove has also eliminated plastic from its properties through different initiatives, such as serving water in reusable containers.
The hotels are two of 12 Emaar properties that have started to reduce food waste leveraging data analytics using Winnow. The entire Emaar Properties group has saved 1.3 million dirhams ($354,000) since March 2018, according to Winnow.
Following this successful proof-of-concept phase, Winnow launched an Artificial Intelligence (AI)-enabled product in May in collaboration with the UAE’s Ministry of Climate Change & Environment and Emaar Hospitality. The AI, Winnow Vision, take photos of wasted food as it is binned and trains itself to recognise what has been thrown away. This means that over time, the data will be captured automatically, increasing accuracy and ease of use.
Consumer demand is also driving change in the hospitality industry. Paul Dunphy, general manager of Intercontinental Al Khobar in Saudi Arabia said that in the past, many hotels did not give any consideration to the overproduction of food provided that the guests were happy.
“These days, our guests are asking us what we are doing with our leftover food during Ramadan, so we are very conscious of this in the kitchens when we prepare the food for our iftar buffets,” Dunphy recently told Hotelier Middle East. The hotel has teamed up with Saudi Food Bank (Ita’am) this Ramadan, allowing it to collect leftover food, re-box, and offer it to those who are less fortunate.
The UAE government has made a commitment to cut food waste by 50 percent by 2030.
Efforts by Emaar properties, such as Armani and Rove, are part of this larger commitment; the listed company counts state-owned Investment Corporation of Dubai as its largest shareholder.
One of the government’s initiatives is the UAE Food Bank, launched in 2017, that distributes food to those in need while eliminating food waste by collaborating with authorities and charities. The goal is to create an ecosystem to store, package and distribute excess food from hotels, restaurants and supermarkets.
Since its inception, the UAE Food bank has collected and distributed around 4,500 tonnes of food, Dawoud Al Hajri, director general of Dubai Municipality and deputy chairman of the board of trustees at UAE Food Bank announced in February.
To encourage people to calculate the emissions of their diet, green economy think-tank Dubai Carbon launched an online food emissions calculator this Ramadan.
“The Food Print calculator will help people become more aware about the types of food that are impacting the sustainability of our planet. For example, if you eat beef in your diet twice a week, this will contribute 601kg to the UAE’s greenhouse gas emissions annually, which is equivalent to driving a petrol car [for] 2,468km,” chairman of Dubai Carbon Waleed bin Salman said in a statement.
“Making simple changes to the type of foods that people buy and cook can really make a huge difference to the UAE’s total carbon emissions,” he said.
(Reporting by Heba Hashem; Editing by Emmy Abdul Alim firstname.lastname@example.org)
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