“We should think of ourselves as stewards of the Earth and everything that comes with it,” Chen explains when asked what 'food sustainability' actually means. The term is commonly known, however is more dense than it sounds. It encompasses everything from, in Chen's own words, “taking care of the environment by making sure that we use our resources efficiently and responsibly” to “limiting over-consumption and waste”.
Chen was first introduced to food sustainability when working at a 100 percent organic restaurant in Sydney. Describing it as a place she could call home, it was this restaurant which sparked her interest in eco-friendly food, guiding her to Uppsala University in 2013 where she received her degree in food sustainability.
“I took the money and ran,” she jokes.
She is today the co-founder of 'Smaka Lokal' (directly translated as 'Taste Local'), a startup promoting food sustainability in Uppsala, Sweden. Its premise surrounds one major problem which threatens not only sustainability in Sweden, but sustainability for the whole world.
“When food gets thrown away, its not just the resources that go into producing the food that are going to waste, it's also all of the additional resources that are used when you are transporting, processing it into something else, and then taking that product back,” Chen explains.
Chen argues that the serious problem of overconsumption in the 21st century results in an “epidemic of overweight and obesity around the world”.
Overconsumption is so severe that even the notoriously eco-friendly Sweden can't escape from it. Every month, Stockholm alone collects nearly 100,000 kilogram of food waste.
“We [Sweden] still have a problem when it comes to cutting down on food waste. (…) If we simply stop wasting food – which my current estimate is about one third of everything that we eat – we would have lot less of a problem.”
That's exactly what Chen set out to do. Smaka Lokal is a food distributor like no other with the motto “more food, less waste”. The company is based on an app which advertises excess food to consumers directly, provided by restaurants, cafés and local retailers.
“Since restaurants always have to overproduce to provide for an unknown amount of customers, they have more food than they're going to sell. On our app, these restaurants can take pictures of the left-over food and then consumers can buy it at a discounted price.”
Instead of creating their own infrastructure system, Smaka Lokal uses Uppsala's present resources in order to be altogether environmentally friendly. “We thought: why not make it a takeaway system? That would make the most sense since it makes the best use of the pre-existing transport system and doesn't make waste,” says Chen.
The idea has extended over the whole of Uppsala. “We really reduce the amount of waste and assess the amount of food that actually needs to be produced.”
Food waste being composted in Stockholm. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT
Swedish cities are regularly touted as some of the most eco-friendly in Europe, and being located in the university town of Uppsala is nothing short of an advantage in regards to food sustainability. Chen says that “the awareness is definitely there. Second-hand shopping is really popular here, and lots of people recycle or drive hybrid cars, which is something you don't find a lot of in other countries”.
Chen and her team are proof that creating a successful and innovative business in Sweden which encapsulates its culture doesn't necessarily require Swedish roots. “I'm a permanent resident now, but in no way Swedish,” Chen laughs. In addition, her team at Smaka Lokal is completely international, composed of an Iranian co-founder living in Hong Kong, a London-based graphic designer, and finally a Russian-Syrian entrepreneur. “We get quite a global perspective, which is quite beneficial,” she explains. “The language barrier isn't so much of an issue.”
However, Chen's success doesn't come easy. Her personal business-method is “quite challenging”, as it requires a lot of travelling around Uppsala and face-to-face time with the clients. Chen advises other startups too to “try and meet people on their own terms. Building up your network, going to places where you know the right people are going to be, building up friendships – that really helps”.
Currently, Smaka Lokal is only available for businesses to advertise their food. However, just because you can't advertise your food doesn't mean you can't contribute to a more sustainable food environment, especially on the back of the year's biggest holidays.
“There are so many homeless people and refugees that don't have all the access to resources that we would otherwise want them to have. It would be great if people tried to donate some of their food to people who are hungry.”
Chen's ambition doesn't just stop in Uppsala. In the future, she wants to expand her business to nearby Stockholm – and even further. “I have a lot of plans,” she says. “If we were to become billionaires overnight, we could put more money into researching more sustainable takeaway systems for example… there are so many initiatives for agricultural production.”
“We are currently looking for businesses to come on board in Uppsala. If anybody knows a business that would like to promote their sustainability profile and are willing to try something new and to make their business more environmentally friendly, then we would love to talk to them.”
This article was written by The Local's intern Tilly Olsson.