Food waste: there’s an app for that

Tessa Cook and Saasha Celestial-One founded London's first food sharing app just over a year ago. Now OLIO is a household name in the capital, having saved over 125,000 items of food from the bin in the past year alone.

Tessa Cook is no stranger to food waste. Born into a farming family, Cook grew up seeing roughly a third of her family’s hard work tossed out daily.

Years later, a chance meeting between Cook and fellow Stanford alumna Saasha Celestial-One set the cogs in motion for OLIO, London’s first socially conscious app that tackles food waste head on.

Over £12.5 billion worth of edible food per year, at a cost of £700 to the average family, goes straight to landfills, and according to Cook and Celestial-One, households are responsible for half of these worrying statistics in the UK.

More than a way to save perfectly good food from the garbage heap, OLIO connects neighbours with each other and with local businesses to collectively challenge prevailing attitudes around excessive consumption.

Co-founder Tessa Cook talks to GrowthBusiness about her experience getting OLIO off the ground.


Name: Tessa Cook
Location: London
Date launched: Pilot launched in five postcodes in North London in July 2015; UK wide availability from January 2016
Number of employees: 8                          

What does your business do?

OLIO is a free app that connects neighbours with each other and with local independent shops so surplus food can be shared, not thrown away. This could include food nearing its use-by date from shops, cafes and markets; spare vegetables from the allotment; cakes from an amateur baker; or groceries from household fridges when people go away or move home.

To access the app, users simply snap a picture of their items and add them to OLIO. Neighbours then receive customised alerts and can request anything that takes their fancy, and arrange pick-up from home, the store, an OLIO DropBox, or another agreed location.

Since launch, the app has had over 80,000 downloads and has been used to re-distribute over 125,000 items of food! Much of this growth has been powered by our network of 5,000 people who have reached out to offer to volunteer to spread the word about OLIO in their local community. Whilst our users love the app because it helps them to reduce food waste and/or bag a bargain, what they really love is the community aspect and getting to meet a neighbour!

Where did the idea for your business come from?

I’m a farmer’s daughter, and so have always hated throwing away good food. This is because I know from first-hand experience just how much hard work goes

into producing it!

As a result, the inspiration for OLIO came when I was moving country and found myself on moving day with some good food that we hadn’t managed to eat, but that I couldn’t bring myself to throw away. And so I set off on a bit of a wild goose chase to try and find someone to give it to, and I failed miserably.

Through the whole process it seemed to me crazy that I should have to throw this food away when there were surely plenty of people within hundreds of metres of me who would love it, the problem was they just didn’t know about it. And so the idea of OLIO, a mobile app where neighbours and local shops & cafes can share surplus food, came about.

How did you know there was a market for it?

At first we didn’t! We just had our personal experiences which was that we hated throwing away good food. So we knew that we first had to start with desk research. And this very quickly demonstrated that food waste is a massive problem.

Here in the UK alone, households – which are responsible for half of all food wasted in the country – bin over £12 billion of edible food per year, at a cost of £700 to the average family.

At the same time, food waste disposal costs local stores and governments £1 billion per year, whilst food waste also ranks as the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, after the USA and China. So, clearly a massive problem in desperate need of a solution.

Next came proving the concept. To test our idea before launch, we created a WhatsApp group of 12 people we didn’t know – but who had responded to our market research survey to say they hated food waste – to see if they would take that next step to share their surplus food rather than throw it away.

And thankfully the answer was a resounding yes! This trial gave us crucial insight into what product features we did, and just as importantly did not, need to build for our launch.

And so we partnered with development agency, Simpleweb, to build the very first version of OLIO, and we launched our pilot version of the app in July 2015. From there we have expanded as rapidly as we can, encouraging as many people as possible to join The Food Sharing Revolution!

How did you raise funding, and why?


For our first round of funding last summer we experienced the classic “ask for advice and get investment”, and so were extremely lucky! We got this investment by approaching an investor I had previously worked with and asking them how to best approach fundraising at this early stage so that we didn’t make any mistakes to make us less attractive at later rounds.

This investor doesn’t normally invest at seed stage but was extremely excited by the enormity of the problem we’re trying to solve, and by us as a team and our solution, and so offered to take our whole round! We then used this investment to build a small team around Saasha and I – namely to bring the tech in-house, to get a marketing manager and to bring on a small team to help drive awareness of OLIO in local communities.

Second time round things have been much more challenging as the market has changed dramatically, and being a pre-revenue food sharing app definitely isn’t the obvious choice! However I’m delighted to say that we’re in the final stages of closing this investment round which will give us runway into early 2018.

Describe your business model in brief.

OLIO isn’t currently generating any revenues as we’re focused on making the product as good as we can, and growing the network. However within the next 3-6 months we will introduce the ability to pay for items or make a donation to charity, seamlessly via the app, and so we will take a platform commission on these transactions. However the ability to add and request items for free will always remain available too.

What was your first big milestone and when did you cross it?

The first big milestone was the first item of food being added to the app by someone who wasn’t a friend or member of our families – it was a home-grown lettuce and we almost wept with joy! That took place within our first 24 hours of being live. After that it was reaching 1,000 downloads in our first month, which was a huge milestone because it gave us some validation that maybe we weren’t totally crazy!

What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs?

A couple of pieces of advice…..Make sure it’s a real problem you’re trying to solve (this ensures the market is there and big enough); be clear on why it’s your problem to solve (this ensures you have the passion and resilience that’s absolutely essential for any start up); and focus on delighting the first 100 customers (this ensures that you’re obsessed with the user and building a product that will delight – both of which are essential to get to ‘product/market fit’). And finally, surround yourself with a great team, and have fun!

Where do you want to be in five years’ time?

We want there to be hundreds of millions of hyper-local food sharing networks all over the world, so that good food gets eaten, and not thrown away! OLIOing will be a way of life so that nothing of value goes to waste. Bold ambitions, but we might as well aim high!

If you weren’t an entrepreneur, you would be…

Probably still slogging away in the corporate world dreaming of being an entrepreneur!

What is your philosophy on business or life, in a nutshell?

I had a major realisation a few years ago, which was that I was sick and tired of sitting in the audience being inspired by other people’s lives, rather than being inspired by my own.

And that was what finally gave me the courage to take the entrepreneurial leap.  So in a nutshell I’d say “be inspired by yourself”. I’m also really motivated by Gandhi’s words: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world”.

What was your experience starting up? 

Starting anything is hard, however the real challenge was bootstrapping for the first nine months – we had no funding, an idea and all our bills to pay. Throw in the fact that I was juggling moving country and house, had a toddler and a new-born baby, a hyperactive puppy and was working flat out to get OLIO off the ground, and that should paint the picture.

My co-founder Saasha and I gave ourselves a year to make OLIO a success, so the clock was ticking from day one! With regards to regulation we realised that this was an area that needed to be 110 per cent robust, and so we enlisted the help of ABC Food Law who have been fantastically helpful and have guided us throughout our journey.

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for from 2016 to 2018.

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