Singapore startup TreeDots drops talking about 'sustainability' to save more food from going to waste


To date, TreeDots has rescued more than 2,500 tonnes of food waste

For a business that is all about food waste, local social enterprise TreeDots buries the lead on their sustainability cause.

And they have very good reasons to not brandish their sustainability efforts like other companies.

For those who have not heard of TreeDots, it is essentially a food marketplace.

TreeDots acts as a distributor that purchases surplus or imperfect food items, that would otherwise be thrown away, from suppliers and sells them at a discounted price to other businesses.

This local start up was founded in 2017 by three long-time friends Nicholas Lim, Tylor Jong, and Lau Jiacai.

To date, TreeDots has saved more than 2,500 tonnes of food waste, most of which consists of chicken and seafood.

Mothership spoke to Lau, one of the founders, to understand the secrets behind TreeDots’ success and food waste as a systemic issue in the F&B industry.


How food gets wasted, then rescued

Unwanted food items are at the heart of TreeDots’ business.

So you may wonder: Why do businesses even allow food to go to waste in the first place?

One of the biggest reasons is that businesses tend to buy more than they need, to ensure constant supply to meet demands and avoid running out of stock.

Another contributor to the problem are "beauty standards" that cause perfectly fine food to be filtered and thrown away as they are not aesthetically pleasing enough.

In many cases, food merchants have certain restrictions for the produce they are willing to use, Lau explained.

Spring chickens, for example, are typically too small for fast food chains or chicken rice stores. This is where TreeDots comes to the rescue as the company helps redirect these chickens to smaller-scale businesses like fine dining restaurants and luxury hotels.

While some businesses reject bruised or discoloured chicken, TreeDots repurposes them into chicken cubes which they sell to food caterers.

These kampong chickens (600-700g) are undersized, compared to the average chicken (1kg) in the market.

How serious is the food waste problem in Singapore?

In 2020, Singapore generated a total of 665,000 tonnes of food waste.

And over the last 10 years, our food waste problem has only grown by around 20 per cent.

While consumers can take steps to reduce food waste at the individual level, the majority of food waste actually occurs upstream in the supply chain, before the food items reach consumers.

According to the research by TreeDots, more than 85 per cent of food wastage happens at the business level.

But here’s the silver lining – Lau noted that there has been a "relatively huge shift" in the perspective on food waste and sustainability over the years, mainly due to the growing sustainability movement.

Barramundi fillets are more in demand than their bellies, leading to a surplus in barramundi bellies.

Less popular parts of the chicken are consolidated into a bag for bulk sale.

Food waste as "a necessary part of the business"

Unfortunately, the F&B industry is still rather traditional, Lau shared.

One of the biggest challenges faced by the founders during the inception of TreeDots was that the older generation of food suppliers was unreceptive to the idea of sustainability, and reluctant to modify a dependable business structure that has worked well for them.

Most crucially, they did not recognise food waste as an issue, but simply "a necessary part of the business".

"It's not big enough of a problem for them to solve it. And there's no one to consolidate this problem across all suppliers," Lau said.

It is here that TreeDots sees an opportunity to enter the market.


Angling away from talking about sustainability

Despite having sustainability at the core of the business, the team learnt that approaching buyers and sellers with that pitch can be unproductive, Lau reflected.

"We have early suppliers that we did that with, and until today they still think we are a food charity," Lau explained.

Instead of convincing their partners to buy into their mission, the team found a better approach to pitching their business -- by simply sticking to discussing product, price, quantity and quality.

"They just can't grasp the concept," Lau said, "so especially for upstream businesses, we align them in terms of business mechanics."


Support from DBS

Five years on, the company stands at around 120 employees today.

The founders now face a different set of challenges as they expand their operations to other Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia.

Due to the logistics-heavy nature of the business, Lau shared that TreeDots recently faced difficulties in managing manpower and handling the high-volume hiring that the company needed to match their growth.

TreeDots is looking at hiring eight to 10 new drivers each month.

DBS Bank (DBS) has acted as a business advisor to the TreeDots' founders, providing guidance on people management, human capital, technology and marketing, Lau shared.

The DBS human resources team, which hires about 200 employees each month, also taught them how to improve their workflow and manpower planning.

This relationship with DBS goes way back to 2018 when they received the DBS Foundation Social Enterprise grant.

This article was created in partnership with Mothership on Earth

The 2022 DBS Foundation Grant programme is open for applications till 31 May 2022. On top of our unflagging support for social enterprises with grants of up to SGD 250,000, we have also launched a new grant programme to support small-and-medium enterprises (SMEs) looking to kickstart their transition towards becoming more sustainable businesses with grants of up to SGD 100,000.

The programme includes holistic support from the bank, and endeavors to grow businesses-for-impact, which are key to a more sustainable future for all. Join us, and apply before 31 May 2022:

Learn more about how you can continue your journey #TowardsZeroFoodWaste.

Find out more about DBS’ other partnerships and initiatives #TowardsZeroFoodWaste. 

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