Mr Lau Jia Cai and two former classmates from Presbyterian High set up TreeDots in 2017. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN
Mr Lau Jia Cai was appalled at the amount of produce being wasted in Singapore and left his accounting job to do something about it.
Mr Lau Jia Cai has some fascinating stories about food wastage.
He once met a poultry supplier who was throwing away about seven tonnes of chicken a day.
"Partly because the chickens are not the right size," the 28-year-old says. "Many of their customers from the food and beverage (F&B) industry want chickens of a certain size, say 1.3kg.
"When the supplier can't find the right buyers because the birds are too big or too small, they chuck them aside. And when they can no longer sell them, they just throw them away."
The level of food wastage, he continues, is "insane", especially in business-to-business (B2B) transactions. Indeed, statistics by the National Environment Agency show that Singaporeans wasted 744 million kg of food last year.
This dismal state of affairs prompted Mr Lau and two former classmates from Presbyterian High - Mr Tylor Jong and Mr Nicholas Lim - to set up TreeDots in 2017. The social enterprise is a bridge between unsold food inventory and buyers - usually F&B businesses - willing to buy them at discounted prices of up to 30 per cent.
TreeDots uses a digital platform which does a nifty job of matching buyer and seller, and enabling quick transactions.
For the former accountant and his partners - also from the finance trade - the business makes sense on several levels: It is sustainable, helps businesses save money, prevents food wastage and has social impact. He says: "We told ourselves: 'No matter how altruistic, what we do has to make business sense. It has to be sustainable'."
Pleasant and personable, Mr Lau is the youngest of three children of a housewife and a retired Grab driver.
His parents gave him a long leash. "For them, it was do whatever you want as long as you take care of your grades. Don't cause trouble," he says.
To earn pocket money, he took on all sorts of gigs - "selling ice cream, distributing flyers, and working in cafes and restaurants".
"You learn to interact with all sorts of people and to be street-smart," says Mr Lau, who also ran a blogshop selling men's T-shirts.
At school, he hung out with a group of about 10 friends, including Mr Jong and Mr Lim. "What do we have in common? I'd say we are old souls. We still get together at least once a month," he says.
He opted for accountancy instead of business at Nanyang Technological University, even though he was sure he would end up starting a business. "A good company needs strong financials and I wanted to understand that."
His social conscience got a prod when he lived in a small town near Frankfurt for six months on a student exchange programme in 2015.
The Germans are very green and environmentally conscious, he says. He recalls how his landlord once berated him for throwing out the trash without sorting out the items for recycling.
"He said: 'Everybody does it. Why can't you guys do it?' So, we started to do it too and it felt good."
Upon graduating in 2016, Mr Lau joined professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers as a financial services auditor and fintech associate. He was well-paid and his career prospects were good, but he did not find work fulfilling.
Over dinner one night with Mr Jong and Mr Lim - both Singapore Management University graduates then working in the consulting and finance industries - the issue of sustainable living and food wastage cropped up.
"We all had strong feelings about it and felt it was a good cause we could support, so we decided to find out more about it," he says.
Their research shocked them, especially statistics which indicated that B2B transactions accounted for more than 85 per cent of food wastage.
"Thinking about the large amounts of food being thrown, the questions on our minds were: 'Does this food have market value? Why is it being thrown? Is there a way we can monetise this by creating a service to clear such products?'"
The first to quit his job to get the ball rolling, Mr Lau was not fazed by what many saw as a risky undertaking. "I believe everything is fated. Things happen for a reason, so let's just go with the flow. Anyway, I have an accountancy degree to fall back on and there will always be a demand for accountants," he says, adding that his co-founders share the same sentiments.
Getting it off the ground was arduous. The trio made cold calls and knocked on doors to speak to F&B businesses which they knew nothing about.
It required thick skin, grit and stamina, but it helped them understand the industry and how they could add value to their operation.
To save money on tech costs, Mr Lau turned programmer. The three friends worked from home and did the deliveries themselves at the beginning. "I had two accidents while doing deliveries," he recalls, revealing the scars on his left leg.
"We started paying ourselves a salary only last year," adds Mr Lau, who is in this year's Forbes list of 30 Under 30 entrepreneurs and change-makers in Asia.
To keep them chugging along, they applied for grants and took part in and won several competitions, including Social Startup Challenge 2018, using the prize money to fund operations. Last year, DBS Foundation awarded them a grant to accelerate their growth and linked them up with other businesses.
TreeDots is coming along nicely. "We sold 900kg in 2018. Now, we are doing three to four tonnes of produce a day," Mr Lau says.
Plans are afoot to expand to neighbouring countries, starting with Malaysia. "This is just the tip of the iceberg. There's so much that needs to be done. A lot of education is needed to make businesses and people realise how much food is being wasted."
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about the food you sell?
The biggest misconception is that the food is either expiring or ugly and defective. But most of the products we deal with are unsold due to reasons such as over-import and under-demand. As a result, it has to be thrown away after some time.
How big is the food wastage problem in Singapore?
Last year, Singapore alone generated about 744 million kg of food waste and over the past 10 years, this figure has grown by about 20 per cent. You can get more information at str.sg/J6E9.
Many of the food vendors you approached are traditional family businesses. Were they resistant and how difficult was it to get them on board?
Interestingly, the concept of unsold inventories isn't new to food vendors. It ultimately still boils down to the pricing and quality of the products. It took us some time to understand the market and gain the expertise in matching the right products to the right food vendors.
What is not easy is getting the vendors to go digital to streamline transactions. It took a lot of persuasion and training to get them on our platform and to purchase directly through our app.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, this is made slightly easier with the widespread adoption of technology, especially among the older citizens, due to the Covid-19 situation.
You probably have had many doors slammed in your face. Is failure and rejection good for the soul?
I've always believed that what is meant to be will be. It is unavoidable to encounter failure, but the failures will build you up and prepare you for success in the future, even though you may not know when it will come.
I've experienced this a couple of times. I really believe failures are lessons that prepare you for bigger opportunities.
Do you agree food-waste knowledge is low? How can we improve it?
I think food wastage is a topic that is highly discussed among consumers, who can relate to it. The food waste occurring at the business level, however, is another matter. It is insane, but it is hush-hush.
It is great to see the media shining more light on these issues. To improve the situation and raise greater awareness. It is important for those who know to advocate and spread the word. Let others know about the problems and solutions. Encourage one another to be sustainable.
What are the three most effective ways to reduce food waste in our daily lives?
Do not be picky about produce. Cosmetic filtering is a big cause of food wastage and a result of trying to satisfy the consumer's unrealistic expectation of what produce should look like.
Buy only what is needed. When you do that, the suppliers will produce less to meet demand. With less production, there is likely to be less wastage.
Finish your meals. Food wastage at the consumer level is small compared with the business level, but finishing what is on your plate helps build the mindset of not wasting food and it's an important first step.
What does purpose mean to you?
It is something that drives me every day, the reason for me to get up every morning. To me, TreeDots is the purpose.
About the series
This series is in collaboration with The Sunday Times on purpose-driven businesses committed to solving challenging issues of our time.