• Sunday, Feb 05, 2023
  • Last Update : 09:54 am

OP-ED: How start-ups are improving food safety and reducing food waste

Vegetable retail sales Dhaka
Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

Lack of availability of safe and nutritious food options, and lack of affordability of nutrient dense food is driving a wedge in our food system 

Bangladesh has attained self-sufficiency in food production, but a significant majority of the population suffers from deficiencies in vitamin A, vitamin D, calcium, zinc, and folic acid. 

These deficiencies in micronutrients have detrimental impacts on the cognitive development of children, physical growth and contributes towards maternal and child mortality. These are occurring despite sufficient production of fruits and vegetables in Bangladesh. 

Sadly, close to 30[1]% of fruits and vegetables are perished before it reaches consumers. Such losses have significant impact on the affordability of nutrient dense fruits and the farmers do not receive a price to keep themselves afloat. 

The rapid urbanization of Bangladesh is escalating these challenges with lack of availability of agricultural land, long value chains and elongated value chains increasing the prices at consumer level. 

According to World Bank 55%[2] of the population in urban areas in Bangladesh lives in slums and they suffer the most from the adverse impact of the food price instability and malnutrition. The double burden of malnutrition that is increasing prevalence of both undernutrition and overnutrition is a major public health concern. 

In urban areas, 37%[3] of women (15-49) suffer from obesity and 45% of the children under-5 are stunted in urban slums. The adolescence is the last window of opportunity for cognitive and physical development but in urban areas 47% of the adolescents are overweight. 

The lack of availability of safe and nutritious food options and the lack of affordability of nutrient dense food is driving a wedge in our food system that can potentially overburden our health system.  

Moreover, food contamination and exposure to food hazards are persistent across the food chain in Bangladesh due to food adulteration, pesticide residues and microbiological contamination, among others. 

Food production is also contributing towards 70% of ground water depletion, the indiscriminate use of pesticide is threatening the local biodiversity and intense agriculture and aquaculture is contributing to chemical effluent in the water bodies of Bangladesh. These unsustainable food production process threatens the future of food security and nutrition in Bangladesh.   

These challenges might seem overwhelming but there are few dynamic start-ups which are showing light of hope in tackling some of these endemic food system challenges. Jackfruit 360 co-founded by two master’s students from Food Technology Department of Bangladesh Agricultural University (BAU) has developed comprehensive processing solution for Jackfruits. 

In Bangladesh, 43.1% (FPMU, 2010) of Jackfruit are perished before it reaches the consumer. Proma Sen and her team from Jackfruit 360 has developed air fried chips, flour (out of jackfruit seeds) and different other value-added products made of jackfruits which are highly nutrient dense and solves the post-harvest loss problem of Jackfruits. 

Ghost Kitchen Bangladesh manages 60,000 restaurants under their cloud kitchen model and their KitchOS 4.0 business idea plans to improve production efficiency, reduce food waste, and monitor food handling equipment at restaurants and commercial kitchens using sensor based IoT technology. 

Inspira, a Delhi based start-up founded by Aman Jain seeks to expand its business of peel-based food solution to Bangladesh. Inspira has developed instant soup using banana peels at only Tk8. These highly nutrient dense soup solutions can be a game changer for meeting the nutritional gap of most vulnerable and low-income population in Bangladesh.  

Green Grain is a startup based in Chittagong and its founder Tanvir Shakil is a pioneer of developing industrial production of cashew nut in Bangladesh. Cashew is a highly nutrient dense nut but has been too expensive for consumption by larger population base in Bangladesh. 

Green Grain aims revolutionize the cashew industry of Bangladesh with the inclusion of BlockChain in sourcing of raw cashew nut and applied IoT in processing for becoming the most advanced cashew industry in the world. 

Dr Recycle is a start-up which utilizes food waste to produce versatile range of products including a fruit mix juice powder, potent supplement for poultry industry and biofertilizers. Dr Recycle is creating economic value addition to waste as well as solving the nutritional challenge across food system. 

Finally, iPage is a start-up that helps farmers to cultivate smartly through its data-driven, site-specific advisory service and market connectivity.

These innovative start-ups were identified and nurtured through the Food Frontiers: Urban Food Systems Innovation Challenge for youth entrepreneurs to bring disruptive innovation in urban food system of Bangladesh. 

This Innovation Challenge was organized by the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Business Network (SBN) Bangladesh which is chaired by Ministry of Industries and co-convened by Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) and the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and supported by Stellar Value Partners (SVP) and Turtle Venture as its accelerator. 

Food Frontiers had three thematic areas which included Circular Food Flow Economy, Disruptive Technological Innovation, and Innovative Marketing Campaign. 

These concepts were completely new in the start-up ecosystem so to build the capacity of the potential applicants. SBN with support from SVP and Turtle Venture organized live webinars with different business school, engineering universities, agricultural universities and start-up hubs across Bangladesh. 

Campus Coordinators have volunteered to support the application process in different universities and in start-up hubs. A strong collective effort from all partners has ensured that Food Frontiers has received 85 very strong applications. 

Subsequently a judging panel consisting of experts in Food Technology, Commercialization, Investments and Nutrition impact has been convened. 

The top 15 applicant were chosen based on seven criterions which included nutrition impact, socio-economic impact, commercial viability, affordability, scalability, innovation and adaptability through extensive screening. 

Shortlisted applicants went through an intense round of weeklong bootcamp which covered topics such as Sustainable Food System, Business Communication, Food Safety, Influencing Consumer Choices, Go to Market Strategy, Design Thinking, Business Canvassing, Story Telling and Pitching and Fund Raising. 

These trainings were offered by renowned experts and thought leaders in their respective fields so that the start-ups could get seasoned practical advice on fine tuning their business model, strategy and approach.   

The investor night was organized on June 23, where some of the most renowned impact investors like Tru Value Enterprise Limited, Anchorless Bangladesh. SEAF and Bangladesh Angels Network participated. 

Moreover, commercial investors such BRAC, NDB capital and Lanka Bangla Finance had also joined the investor night. The finalists received an unique opportunity to present their pitch in front of commercial, impact, venture capital and angel investors.  It helped the finalists get exposure to real investment opportunities as well as receive honest feedback to improve their pitch deck. 

On June 30, the Grand Finale of Food Frontiers Urban Food Systems Challenge took place via online. In the final round the judging panel included Piet Vochten, deputy country director of WFP Bangladesh, Charlotte Pederson, senior advisor GAIN Denmark, Sharawwat Islam, CEO of Tru Valu Enterprise Limited, Dr Khondker A Mamun, founder CMED Health, Dr Imran Rahman, dean of School of Business University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB), Dr Gulzarul Aziz, Bangladesh Agriculture University (BAU) and Quamrun Nahar, senior research officer at BIRDEM. Similarly, to the first round there were seven criterions, and each judge was assigned to adjudicate one criterion.  

Dr Ruhul Amin Talukder (PPC), additional secretary, Ministry of Agriculture joined the grand finale as the chief guest, the Managing Director of SME Foundation Mafizur Rahman was the chair, Professor M A Alim, member, Bangladesh Food Safety Authority (BFSA), Dr Nadia Binte Amin, director, FBCCI, Ali Mushtaq Butt, commercial counsellor and head of Trade Embassy of Denmark and Anita Ghazi Rahman, member Investment Committee Start-up Bangladesh attended as special guests. 

The top 12 finalists presented their pitch decks with their innovative business model, nutrition impact and future plan with the guests, multi-stakeholders, experts from various sectors and judging panel. 

The judging panel did the scoring live and the winners were announced on the same night at the end of the event with huge fanfare. The prizes for the Food Frontiers Urban Innovation Challenge were divided in two segments an Infrastructure Award for Seed Stage Companies (companies already in operations for 2-3 years) and Cash Innovation Award for early start-ups (students and idea stage).  

Ghost Kitchen Bangladesh won infrastructure award worth $9000 as first prize, Green Grain won infrastructure award worth $6700 and iPage won infrastructure award worth $4300. In addition, Jackfruit 360, Inspira, and Dr Recycle was the winner of the first cash award of $2500, the second cash prize worth $1500 and the third prize worth $1000 respectively.  

Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Business Network (SBN) over the next few years will work with innovative companies to ensure that these companies can reach scale, market connectivity, access to finance and technical assistance with support from Government of Bangladesh, civil society partners, development partners, academia and the private sector.  

Syed Muntasir Ridwan is the national coordinator of SBN and director of Catalysing Sustainable Transformation (Cast) Research, Dr Ashek Mahfuz is the portfolio lead at GAIN, Mahmudul Hasan, is the programme associate at SBN and Meshkat Hossain Akanda is the private sector specialist at GAIN   

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