Agricultural economist Benjamin Musungu

Agricultural economist Benjamin Musungu, the brains behind the Foodcircle app. 

| Pool

App aids perishable food firms clear stock

What you need to know:

  • How likely are you to use an online platform to buy unsold food from a hotel that is clearing its stocks for the day?
  • Or to buy fresh produce that has been rejected, not because of quality but due to factors like size?

What started cooking as an idea in an inspired young Kenyan’s mind is closer to getting served. And it is likely to land on your plate soon.

How likely are you to use an online platform to buy unsold food from a hotel that is clearing its stocks for the day? Or to purchase surplus food at a wedding or any other celebration near you? Or to buy fresh produce that has been rejected, not because of quality but due to factors like size?

An app called Foodcircle, the brainchild of an agricultural economist called Benjamin Musungu, claims it will make it possible for various businesses to sell food at a price that will save them from making total losses while helping feed those who can’t afford food at market rates.

Mr Musungu says the app will be his way of converting the handling of food from linear to circular, noting that it will deal with food that “is decent”.

“This is not contaminated food. These are not leftovers. This is food that you can actually package, put it on the app and sell it to people nearby, who will be very much willing to buy it at a fraction of the market price,” he says.

The trial version of the app will be going live on Google Play Store next week, with the functional app expected to be launched early next year. Mr Musungu got a grant from a continental agricultural organisation to develop the application.

Mr Musungu foresees a scenario where businesses will make use of the “Food Hour” feature of the Foodcircle app to sell food at the close of business.

“Food Hour offers them a platform where, if they have excess food and they want to close the business for the day, they can sell it,” he told Saturday Nation. “They can sell that excess food to recoup the cost of production.”

Won’t it then lead to a culture of Kenyans not buying food till closure nears to get it on the cheap? We asked him.

“Yes, we foresee such a problem,” he responded. The mitigation measures, he said, will be that they don’t expect all outlets to list surplus food every day.

“Anyone who is waiting might not actually be successful because you might be waiting for Restaurant X’s offers, only to realise that the excess is not there for that day. So, it is not like a guarantee that there will always be excess food at the restaurants at the end of the day,” said Mr Musungu.

“The second thing is that Food Hour does not mean at 8pm or 9pm towards the end of the day. Food Hour can be any time in the course of the day. That is, if you have produced and you feel like you need to remove this stock or to move some stock very fast, it can be just in the course of the day. You can put a flash sale and we advertise it on the platform. Any willing consumer purchases and that goes. The third safeguard that we intend to put is that we want to look at how we also do a background check on the consumers (to ensure it is the food-poor who benefit). That is going to be in the long-term,” he added.

Mr Musungu said that the initial plan is to charge a 10 per cent commission on every transaction, “especially for those purchasing via Food Hour.”

“So, if the cost of producing one piece of pizza is Sh300 and the market price is Sh700, a (pizzeria) can actually sell this pizza at Sh300. By doing that, they will not be going to losses, first of all. Secondly, they will be helping feed the food-poor people who will not have accessed or who would not have been able to buy that food at the market price,” he added. “This also applies to bakeries. If you bake so many cakes and at the end of the day they are not sold, what do you do with them?”

Mr Musungu created the app as one of the ways of dealing with food wastage.

“On average, every Kenyan trashes approximately 99 kilogrammes of food yearly, with the country wasting a total of 5.22 tonnes of food annually,” said Mr Musungu. “Nairobi leads the list of counties with the highest food losses in Kenya. Nairobi’s main food arteries are the Wakulima and Marikiti markets where reportedly 30 percent of unsold edible fresh groceries are discarded daily.”

Mr Musungu is an alumni of Harvard University’s post-graduate programme in entrepreneurship. He holds two master’s degrees – one in international relations from the Kalu Institute, Spain and another in economics from Kenyatta University. He is currently North Africa’s regional partnership officer with the Africa Centre for Disease Control, an agency under the African Union.

He was inspired to create Foodcircle in 2020 after a relative of his was left with lorry-loads of fresh produce that had been barred from exportation.

“This person had already sourced horticultural foods to be exported to the UK and reached the airport at the pack house,” he said. “Most of her products were rejected because of cosmetic standards (like length of bananas and uniformity in the colour of mangoes). Up to 60 per cent was rejected.”

“Witnessing that horror, it made me think, ‘Why are we having such a crisis happening in this day and age, when someone in Kibera doesn’t care whether a banana is 10 centimetres or 20 centimetres? This person can eat it. Why can’t we come up with a pathway of redistributing such foods?’” he recalls.

He said another motivation behind creating the app was the fact that he comes from a poor background. His mother, he recalls, used to volunteer to cook in weddings so she could, in turn, carry home food that the family would eat “for two or three days”.

“We would be very excited because we would feed on rice, which was like a once-in-a-blue-moon affair. We would feed on very nice pilau and all that,” he said.

Another component of the application is a function that reminds a person when the expiry date of a product is nearing. This happens by scanning the product’s barcode or manually feeding the date.

“If you want a daily notification about which product is about to expire, we will notify you. We hope that by this, by continuously notifying you and nagging you that Product X is going to expire, ultimately you’ll be able to either prioritise its consumption or donate it,” said Mr Musungu.

There will also be another capability in the app, whereby a farmer with surplus produce like cabbages can make a post so as to avoid situations where glut is making food rot in some areas whereas famine is biting in others.

“We want to bridge that gap in areas where there is food surplus to areas where there are food deficits,” Mr Musungu notes.

Mr Musungu was part of a group of 80 that graduated in Ethiopia on Friday (December 8) as a Food Systems Fellow under the Centre for African Leadership in Agriculture (Cala).

“We received the funding that we used to develop the app from Agra (Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa) through the Cala programme,” said Mr Musungu.