Full Circle: Building Sustainable Food Ecosystems
This month, we turn our Startup Profile to the issue of food waste. Clarity Mapengo is the co-founder of FruityXFusion – developing an innovative alternative to single-use plastics, using rejected fruits. In the following Q&A she shares her experience developing FruityXFusion and her thoughts on building more resilient food ecoystems.
Q: What problem or challenge is FruityXFusion working to solve?
South Africans use between 30 to 50 kg of plastic per person per year. Most plastic waste is single-use and usually ends up in marine ecosystems (entangling and threatening aquatic life forms). Single-use plastics take years to breakdown and even when they do, it is generally into smaller pieces of plastic. On the other hand, 44% of produced fruit and vegetables are lost to landfills, where they result in the production of greenhouse gases that further pollutes the environment. The perishable nature of fruits and vegetables makes it a more mammoth challenge for producers and retailers. Over the years, innovative technologies have been developed to curb the losses; however, the food wastage is still significant.
Q: How are you innovating to solve that challenge?
Our ideology involves designing biodegradable packaging material/utensils made with commercially rejected fruits such as deformed, discoloured, overripe, mechanically damaged fruits. Most of these rejected fruits would otherwise eventually end up in landfills. This alternative environmentally-friendly solution will reduce the utilisation of single-use plastic and size of greenhouse gas-producing landfills. Since this solution is based on abundant raw materials of reduced or zero commercial value, their production and pricing will be comparable to single-use plastic.
Q: How did the idea and insight for FruityXFusion emerge?
As curious scientists, we are always researching the trends around biosciences. In 2018, my co-founder Humbulani Emmanuel Nekhudzhiga and I realised that the quantity of fresh produce disposed of as waste by the local market was too significant to disregard. Most of the products were deemed overripe and commercially unacceptable to consumers. In that very same year, the World Wide Fund for Nature released statistics on the usage of single-use plastics and its impact on the environment – primarily aquatic life. Upon gathering more information about the food waste problem in South Africa, we came across an overwhelming statistic, i.e. 10 million tonnes of food go to waste annually of which 70% is fruits, vegetables and cereals and about 90% of the waste is disposed of as landfills.
While there are technologies upstream (refrigeration, drying, modified atmosphere packaging) to reduce annual fresh produce losses, we realised that actions should also be implemented downstream to reduce food waste accumulation. FruityXFusion became a feasible idea to curb the bizarre statistics (in food waste, global warming and marine life). In 2020 we managed to have a viable prototype and proof of concept.
What are the biggest opportunities for collaborative innovation that you see in the food waste space?
Several key stakeholders in the industrial ecosystem could partner and foster a more practical approach in boosting the circular economy while curbing the challenges of food waste from various points across the supply chain. We believe that if the entire industry collaborates, impactful change is imminent. By entire the industry, we mean the full cycle – from the farmers/producers, companies supplying farming resources, retailers, food product manufacturers, research institutes, start-ups and consumers.
Q: How can we foster collaboration across sectors and across borders to grow innovation around food waste and creating more circular economies across food ecosystems?
Research institutes and start-ups play a huge role in such collaborations. Research institutes can play a decisive role in linking or bridging the gap between educational institutes and the industry. We are all parts of the same wheel seeking to promote sustainable and effective production processes. Within organisations in the food industry space, there is a need to refine the intrapreneurship environment to inspire and allow young minds to bring their ideas to light without feeling exploited. Science and technology are too complex to tackle food waste’s challenges from one angle without possibly neglecting/creating a problem in another space. Therefore collaboration across borders & sectors can assist in curbing the possible challenges from different directions. Governments, industries and research institutes need to make funds available for start-ups because effective entrepreneurship and intrapreneurship is the fastest way to foster innovation around food waste and create more circular economies across food ecosystems
Q: Are there any specific areas where you are interested in exploring collaboration with FruityXFusion?
Apart from already working with the University of Pretoria, we are looking into collaborating with our local farmers’ cooperatives and fruit & vegetable markets. This will help us effectively collect our raw materials and help local farmers get a small revenue from their ‘losses’ as they sell to us this commercially rejected fresh produce before it hits the landfills. We intend to initially reach out to all restaurants at our local the university to foster a partnership and pilot our product before launching it city and nationwide. Eventually, we hope to infiltrate global markets through franchising with some big names in the foodservice sector worldwide.
Q: Could you share a brief overview of your research background? You’ve also been participating in the InnoFood research project – could you briefly share more about your work and research there?
My research background is in starch modification and structure-functional property of food biopolymers. My work is centred on manipulating the structure of food biopolymers using green chemistry to promote micro-and nanostructural changes that will ultimately enhance the nutritional properties of starch and starch-containing food products. Currently I am working on the InnoFood project at the University of Pretoria , where I am working on developing low glycemic index (GI) flours from indigenous African crops (lower glycemic index foods are slower to digest and therefore leave one feeling full for longer). These flours will then be used to manufacture different food products such as instant porridges etc. There is so much potential in African crops, and we are trying to tap into that potential and develop products that can alleviate malnutrition. In a world rampaged by diet-related non-communicable diseases such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease, low glycemic index foods could really positively impact health and well-being.
Q: How can we strengthen the links between research/academia and entrepreneurship/business in accelerating innovation around food ecosystems in Africa and internationally? How can we strengthen collaborative innovation across different sectors and geographies?
I think platforms, projects and programs like InnoFood and UNLEASH (a global platform for SDG Innovation – focusing on bringing together young people across the globe to collaborate on SDG solutions and part of the HelloScience Ecosystem) are already showing us the way by bringing diverse people from around the world to work together for a common cause. We need more of such projects and programs. We are obviously in different development stages and technological ‘savviness’, therefore if we establish projects that bring people from different settings to work together, our problems are half solved. Funding is another crucial part in strengthening the links, as it is difficult to make headway in anything if one has limited resources. Bi and multi-lateral aid can be helpful to strengthen innovation across different geographies.
What are the biggest insights you’ve gained from your work and research around food and food waste?
Everything is interconnected and innovation is vital in tackling challenges around food insecurity and food waste. The inception of FruityXFusion concept made us food scientists tackle food waste and marine life too and that’s just a fraction of how technology and innovation have no bounds.
What would you like to see achieved in building more resilient, sustainable food ecosystems by 2030?
I would like to see young food science innovators being financially supported because I believe they hold the keys for effective transformation. The gaps between various sectors, especially research and the industry must be bridged, yielding a rich, effective and diversified market. I would be elated if by 2030, the global food systems’ key barriers such as fresh produce waste, low productivity, and food insecurity have been tackled. Ultimately we must be a part of a world and communities where improved sustainable food production technologies, food waste management, and business skills are coercive pillars effectively anchoring food ecosystems.