Food waste is a common problem in all industrial societies. According to the Department of Environment and Energy, Australia produced 7.3 million tonnes of food waste in 2016-17. Of this, 34% was created in our homes. At the same time, more than 4 million Australians have experienced food insecurity in the last 12 months.
Queensland impact start-up Spare Harvest is looking to bridge this divide. The app-based community facilitates the swapping, sharing, selling and sourcing of produce, pantry items, gardening equipment, and much more… “We have left the categories and ways in which people interact very open to make it easy for anyone to participate,” explains company founder Helen Andrew.
Over a period of three and a half years – and with very little technical knowledge – Helen bootstrapped an online marketplace with 3,000 members and around 300 listings.
An idea to fight food waste – grown in the backyard
And it all started with a problem in Helen’s own backyard. When she traded life in the City and her corporate career in favour of a plot of land on the Sunshine Coast and raising her children, she knew one thing for certain: she wanted to be able to grow her own food and provide her kids with an experience similar to her own childhood in suburban Brisbane.
The Sunshine Coast property looked like it would allow her to fulfill that dream. It had many established fruit trees with the potential to add more varieties over time.
The first harvest came and it soon dawned on Helen that her new home overdelivered on its promise. She had more mandarins than her family could possibly eat. “I tried to give them away but my neighbours all had the same problem,” says Helen. “That year I had to bury a lot of fruit in the garden.”
She also quickly realised that she’d experience the same issue again in the following year, if she didn’t work on a solution. That’s how the idea for Spare Harvest was born.
Taking the leap to become a founder
But to get from the idea to a viable online community still took a lot of hard work. “I really had to dig deep and step out of my comfort zone to get Spare Harvest off the ground,” remembers Helen. “I had been out of the workplace for a while and only recently moved into the area, so my personal network was very limited.”
Yet, it wasn’t too long until Helen was able to mobilise others with her boundless enthusiasm. Soon she made a connection at her son’s school who helped her built the first version of Spare Harvest on a simple Wordpress site.
The first 100 people signed up – and Helen quickly understood that she needed a more robust technical solution to bring her vision to life. After a few iterations, Spare Harvest is now solid enough to support up to 1 million users.
Nurturing a community of like-minded people
But growth at all cost is not Helen’s main priority. “I want to make sure that we continue to attract the right people to the platform,” she says. “It’s about connecting a community of like-minded people who want to live a more sustainable lifestyle – and where everyone contributes what they can.”
“Supermarkets don’t really sustain a community, and they completely remove people from the food chain.”
– Arthur Potts Dawson
Spare Harvest’s open approach has drawn in a wide range of people from millennials wanting to swap their urban harvest to grandparents needing to move leftover treats from the grand kids’ last visit.
“One of the most surprising things to me how much the technology has connected people in real life,” says Helen and recounts stories of food swaps that turned into regular play dates for the kids.
Taking Spare Harvest into businesses
Platform membership has grown very organically through word-of-mouth and Helen presenting at garden shows and other relevant events. “I didn’t have a lot of money to make Spare Harvest happen, but I did have time,” she says.
Right now signing up as an individual to Spare Harvest is free. Yet, to make the platform commercially viable, Helen is looking to take her concepts into businesses. The goal of the initiative is to connect staff in more meaningful ways, while also boosting the company’s sustainability and corporate social responsibility credentials.
A Sunshine Coast hotel was one of the first businesses to adopt the new program. “In the hospitality industry, businesses can be a bit hamstrung when it comes to reducing food waste due to government regulations around food safety,” explains the start-up founder. “But they can still make an impact by encouraging staff to share their surplus with others in the business they might otherwise never get to talk to.”
Joining Spare Harvest
Do you have an oversupply of produce, an overflowing pantry or garden shed? Spare Harvest could connect you to people who will put it to good use! Sign up on the website here of download the app for Android or iPhone.