Food for Thought

Social entrepreneur Aoibheann O’Brien speaks about founding the pioneering food sharing platform, FoodCloud.

Launching a social enterprise requires passion, innovation, focus and tenacity – the qualities Aoibheann O’Brien holds in abundance.

Not only does creating such an initiative from scratch require a good deal of risk-taking, an entrepreneurial spirit is essential.

Aoibheann, from Portumna, County Galway, credits UL for fostering her business acumen and drive to enact change. She studied the Bachelor of Arts in Law and Accounting, a course she describes as cultivating a good grounding in the principles of businesses and law. Not just purely theoretical, the degree course involved a work experience module which she took up at JP Morgan in London.“The CoOp placement was extremely valuable in giving us practical and really good quality work experience.”

Aoibheann worked as part of the environmental and social risk management team within the investment bank in 2009, securing a place on their graduate programme.
“In my time there, I was delighted to find a role that brought together my passion for sustainability with finance.”

FoodCloud co-founders Iseult Ward and Aoibheann O’Brien at the launch of the FoodCloud Hub in October 2016

Whilst living in London, Aoibheann encountered food sharing and food rescue organisations like FoodCycle, FareShare and Rubies in the Rubble that were addressing the problem of food waste in a way that brought communities together through food.

Almost 30 per cent of food is wasted across the global food system – an incredible waste of money and resources. “This raises serious moral questions at a time when almost 1 billion people don’t have enough to eat. In Ireland, we waste one million tonnes of food [each year].”

Returning home, she found there were no such organisations and the seed for FoodCloud was planted. “Seeing an obvious problem with such engaging solutions that could also bring people together was a
real motivator. I loved the idea that sectors within local communities could work together in a really practical
way to address the social and environmental problems associated with needlessly wasting food.”

Aoibheann attended a meeting about Enactus, a global organisation promoting social enterprise in universities, where she met Iseult Ward who later became her business partner and co-founder of FoodCloud.

“We had our first donation from Honest to Goodness Farmers market in Glasnevin in June 2012 and realised that to scale our solution we needed to use technology. With a lot of help and support over the following year, we launched with a Tesco store in Dublin in October 2013. We have grown a lot from there, across Ireland and into the UK with retailers including Tesco, Lidl, Aldi and Waitrose.”

A huge step in leading the revolution was joining the Bia Food Initiative in 2016 to launch FoodCloud Hubs. FoodCloud matches retailers with surplus food to charities that need it through a technology platform in communities across the UK and Ireland.

So, what’s her advice to budding social entrepreneurs? “Talk to as many people as possible about it; there are lots of resources out there now including Social Entrepreneurs Ireland, Social Innovation Fund and Social Entrepreneurs Network. Setting up any kind of organisation is a challenge. [Ask yourself] what is the problem you are trying to solve? How are you going to fund it?”

Awarded the Irish Tatler Business Woman of the Year award in 2017 alongside her business partner, Iseult Ward, she describes the experience as ‘humbling.’ “It really is a testament to the work done over the last number of years by so many people. We have received a lot of funding and support along the way from very early stage support in 2013 right through to now where we have a lot of supporters who are helping us to scale the impact of the organisation nationally and internationally.”

To date, FoodCloud has redistributed the equivalent of 23 million meals from a network of 3,200 supermarkets (including Lidl, Tesco, Aldi, Waitrose) and connected over 100 food businesses (Pallas Foods, Glenisk, Nestlé, Lakeland Dairies) to a network of over 7,000 charities:
No small feat.

Aoibheann O’Brien, BA Law and Accounting, 2007