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Swedish start-up Karma has an innovative solution to food waste

Samuel fishwick
Meal ticket: left to right, Karma’s founders Hjalmar Ståhlberg Nordegren, Elsa Bernadotte, Ludvig Berling and Mattis Larsson

Solving the food waste crisis? There’s an app for that. Karma, a Swedish start-up that launches in London today, has an innovative solution to the problem. Put simply, the app connects restaurants with surplus food to hungry people with a keen eye for a bargain.

Restaurants post when they have meals that would otherwise be thrown away; Karma users receive push notifications to let them know a meal is available, and where exactly it is, mapping out participating restaurants with little pins. The food is almost always available at half price or less — you make the payment through the app and arrange to pick it up. Users have to pick up their food within a time window specified by the restaurant.

The interface is easy to navigate. It lists meals in order of proximity and ranks them by distance, price (including both the original cost and the markdown) and the quantity left. Think Deliveroo but without a delivery time — you have to pick it up yourself.

For restaurants, signing up is a no-brainer. There’s no subscription fee and they make money on food that would otherwise be discarded. Karma estimates that it gives partners the potential to increase yearly revenue by up to £30,000 from food that would have otherwise gone to waste.

So far 50 London restaurants have signed up for the launch this week. The roll call includes Aubaine, Michelin-starred Aquavit, vegetarian restaurant Tibits, Yamabahce, Magpie, Essence Cuisine, Calcutta Street, Hummus Bros, Detox Kitchen and Arkett. The foodie districts of Soho and Clerkenwell are well-represented on Karma, and the focus will be on signing up Zone 1 restaurants during the first phase of the app’s roll-out.

Karma launched in Sweden in 2016 and now has 250,000 users and 1,000 businesses signed up. It’s used in 35 towns and cities: from the major cities of Stockholm, Malmo and Gothenburg, to towns with only 10,000 people.

While food waste is one resource Karma is hoping to optimise, data is another. The algorithm tracks the habits of users and businesses to learn about peak times when the restaurant’s surplus food is in most demand. Cafés and restaurants usually sell surplus breakfasts after 10am and surplus lunches after 2pm. The app takes into account the user’s order history as well as their location in order to push relevant food up your Karma newsfeed. It will be learning the same data about its London restaurants and users.

Crucially, Karma’s data could be used by participating restaurants to create strategies for sustainability. If you can map the patterns of when and what food is wasted, then restaurants can learn how to reduce their environmental impact. Grocery stores and supermarkets can also register to share their spare food and minimise the expiring produce that is dumped in skips at closing time.

Stockholm is a fertile tech incubator, boasting success stories such as Skype and Spotify, and investors have confidence in Karma: it’s received €4million from companies including E.ventures, a global venture capital firm which has previously backed Farfetch, Sonos and Groupon.

Founders Elsa Bernadotte, Hjalmar Ståhlberg Nordegren, Ludvig Berling and Mattis Larsson were recently named by Forbes on its 30 under 30 list of entrepreneurs.

London, though, is the benchmark — Bernadotte knows that if it’s successful here Karma can be successful anywhere. “The food waste problem here is huge as well — much bigger because it’s a bigger country,” she says. “We also think London is a great fit because it has one of the best food scenes in the world, a high number of restaurants and retailers who care about sustainability, as well as a population that is both environmentally conscious and digitally native.” London is a city where people want to try what’s new — but also small enough to get strong data sets.

For its next trick Karma wants to attract supermarkets to the app. The three biggest supermarket chains in Sweden use it and the team hopes that the UK giants follow suit.

The Karma team see their role as educational — not everyone shares their enthusiasm for changing the way food waste is handled by restaurants. “When we started off people in the food industry were sceptical of this solution,” says Bernadotte. “They were asking: ‘Will the restaurants use it, is it easy enough, will people want to buy this kind of food?’”

The app also relies, to an extent, on consumer goodwill: unlike Deliveroo or Uber EATS, users have to pick up their own food. With this in mind Bernadotte is pitching Karma as a social tool to help make saving the planet more convenient. “We always wanted to build something that was bigger than ourselves,” she adds. Karma’s unofficial motto is “Do good, get good”.

“Right now we throw away 1.3 billion tonnes of food every year worldwide, which is actually a huge economic loss, as well as the social, moral and environmental aspect,” says Bernadotte. “The reaction we get from consumers and people in the industry is amazing. We’re really making people grateful and happy. I’ve actually had people come up and hug me and emails from strangers saying thank you. When you’re working 24/7, that makes all the difference.”

For more information, visit karma.life