After volunteering at FoodCycle and helping combat food wastage, entrepreneur Ben Whitehead was inspired to launch his own social enterprise…
“I grew up in the beautiful but very quiet Suffolk countryside - and perhaps unsurprisingly my first job was fruit picking including apples, strawberries and raspberries on a fruit farm!” Ben said.
“I've always been obsessed with food and passionate about social change. I was keen to combine my worlds and realised that creating new products from wasted fruits could be the perfect way to raise awareness of food waste.
“I then discovered an amazing organisation called FoodCycle. I started volunteering there back in 2011, to learn more about food waste and food poverty and it inspired me to do more to help tackle the issue.”
After volunteering at FoodCycle Ben stumbled across Rubies in the Rubble (the food surplus pioneers) and was inspired by their work. The sustainable food brand makes high quality relishes and jams out of surplus produce that would otherwise go to waste.
This inspired him to launch his own social enterprise helping tackle food waste and Spare Fruit was born. Spare Fruit give farms a fair price for perfectly fresh and beautiful fruit that would otherwise go to waste, to help them become more sustainable both environmentally and financially.
Sometimes the fruit is simply the wrong shape, size, colour or even too plentiful - but it still goes to waste. What Spare Fruit does is take away the fruit and turn it into a healthy fruit crisp snack. The crisps are low calorie, 100% fruit and have no artificial additives.
“Preventing food waste is incredibly important,” he said. “We needlessly waste millions of tonnes of perfectly edible food every year, yet millions go hungry everyday - and that’s just in the UK. You can of course swap millions for billions on a global scale.
“It also has a huge environmental impact, vast amounts of valuable natural resources (i.e. water, energy) are needed to grow the produce that ends of being wasted, so it’s a real lose-lose situation.
“But so much is avoidable - a farmer can’t predict commercial market demand or growing conditions but as consumers, we collectively hold a huge amount of power in the choices we make and things we value - it all starts with us ultimately.”
When Ben launched Spare Fruit it was his first ever business venture, he hadn’t previously managed a company before. Luckily, he was able to tap into support from social enterprise support programmes such as UnLtd, the RSA and the School for Social Entrepreneurs.
Ben added: “I managed to get some seed funding from UnLtd, School for Social Entrepreneurs and the RSA in the early days - all of which are amazing organisations. I also got connected with a few mentors through those schemes, some of which I’m still lucky enough to be in contact with.
“I’ve also found that many entrepreneurs who have successfully set-up food brands become very generous in sharing their knowledge. So many new companies fail, especially in the food and drink industry, so the more we can do to support them, the better.”
Launching in August last year, Spare Fruit has already managed to save over 15 tonnes of fresh fruit from being wasted and has sold thousands of bags of fruit crisps in the process. In doing so Ben has managed to get listed in over 20 outlets including Selfridges, The Natural Kitchen and Farmdrop.
But starting up the business hasn’t come without its challenges, as Ben points out: “I think creating a consistently high quality product using surplus produce that would otherwise be wasted on a viable scale was and still is a huge challenge - but if people don’t challenge the status quo then we may as well give up and resign ourselves to the current food system now.
“I started with a shed full of apple crisps, no brand, no packaging and nowhere to sell them - it was quite a moment when we got our first listing. Overcoming challenges like this was a combination of tenacity (despite plenty of pitfalls and people eager to put us out of business before we started), confidence gained from the positivity and good nature of others and also recognition that what we were doing was kind of back to front anyway - so what better way to learn!”
Having overcome a series of challenges already, Ben has developed a product and a brand to carry it, which has already won over some of the biggest names in the industry. On top of this, he has also achieved what he set out to do, create and grow a business with a real positive social impact.
Looking to the future, he concluded: “We are looking to continue growing so that we can establish ourselves long-term as one of the most recognised genuinely sustainable brands that is here to stay.
“We want to rescue as much beautiful British produce as possible and raise awareness amongst millions of people by creating more delicious and amazing products - there isn’t a better way to showcase the quality of the produce that we waste in this country or the demonstrate the scale of the problem.
“The key to this right now is that we find the right investor and the right people - ultimately those that believe in our mission, our products and our potential.”