The Fight Against Food Surpluses


Olcay Silahlı realises his 'childhood dream' as social-entrepreneur fights against food waste by using power of technology. He founded Whole Surplus in 2015, a technology company that helps retailers and food businesses better manage unsold inventory, with the aim of reducing food waste in the food supply chain by 50% until 2030. Here’s his inspiring story and some harsh facts about food waste.

What inspired you to become a social entrepreneur who has sustainability-focused businesses, more specifically, to create Whole Surplus? What’s the story there?

During my childhood, I spent my summers in my grandfather’s farm. Since I was a child, I had the chance to observe the food waste problem, and always sought to find solutions to food waste that happened in my grandfather’s and neighbor farmhouses.

During my business years, I discovered another and bigger dimension of the problem which was happening in the supply and value chains. 

I was delegated to attend the One Young World Summit held in Dublin in 2014, thanks to social responsibility projects I managed during my career. During the summit, the pre-launch event of the Sustainable Development Goals was held for all participating young leaders. During the summit, leaders delegated from various countries presented their innovative ideas to create a sustainable world. However, there was no one from Turkey with an innovative idea. This summit further fueled my passion to create a business that includes good for society and the world.

When I returned back to Turkey, I started working on Sustainable Development Goals and what I can do in Turkey.  I wanted to show young people around the world that you can do a profitable business by doing good for society and the world. I chose the food waste issue, about which I have solid knowledge and experience, to create a social enterprise.

How does Whole Surplus operate? Please describe your services and goals.

Whole Surplus creates technology connection between corporations to eliminate technical and managerial barriers of waste management for food businesses. To do that, Whole Surplus offers a 3-pillard process to its clients. First is a secondary sales marketplace where companies can sell their surplus to other parties at discounted prices. Second is a donation module to create the biggest social value out of surplus and to get tax advantages as well. The third one is the recycling module (primarily animal feed and biogas production) to manage waste in an environmentally responsible way with guaranteed low cost and full traceability.

Besides these three modules, the platform provides real-time reporting and analytics dashboards for dynamic waste stream analysis, insights to reduce waste at the source by using the machine learning algorithm and the use of big data analyzing. With these analytics, the partners can make operational changes, better procurement, production and logistics planning and prevent waste before it occurs. The biggest benefit here is that Whole Surplus manages all types of surplus through one holistic platform. This gives the highest-level data insight to reduce waste at source and reach 2030 goals as well as creating a great ecosystem for a circular economy.

Which gap in the market do you aim to fill with Whole Surplus?

According to FAO, one-third of the food (1.3 billion tons) produced for human consumption in the world goes to waste because of the quality standards (colour, shape, etc.) overproduction and the lack of information about use-by and best before dates. Turkey wastes 7.7 M tonnes of food every year. 793 million people are malnourished in the world, while it is possible to feed those people with this amount. Furthermore, food waste contributes 8% of the total carbon emission.

In the food sector, food waste is mainly caused by inefficient inventory management, logistics operations and high-quality requirements of the food sector. Even though most of the surplus is suitable for human consumption, they end up being landfilled. Because companies have difficulty getting insight into their shrinkage, or they don’t know how to manage their surplus. 

Despite recent attention to food waste and climate change in the world, food businesses lack the required skills, know-how to manage their surplus effectively. They have to make several partnerships for different types of surplus food. The sector also has uncertainty about where food waste occurs and its value because they do not collect data to analyze waste. This lack of data analytics and know-how create information gaps that hinder the collaboration required within businesses to prevent food waste. In this context, by placing technology at the heart, Whole Surplus delivers holistic solutions to food businesses. With the help of the technology and network that is created, the aim is to reduce partners’ food waste-related carbon emission by 50% and to reach the zero-landfill goal.

What are some of your greatest achievements with Whole Surplus in terms of sustainability?

Whole Surplus manages more than 40 company’s surplus food and operates in 264 stores, 8 factories and 23 distribution centers all over Turkey. The company works with sector-leading global and Turkish companies like Migros, Metro CC, Nestle, Danone, A101 so on.

Thanks to our collaborations with our partners, In 4 years, more than 16.000 tonnes of food have been saved, 1.100.000 people in need got food donations, 53.000 tonnes of carbon emission has been prevented and more than 61 billion liters of water have been rescued in 36 cities of Turkey. In sum,  200M TL worth surplus food brought back to the economy. All operations are accomplished through more than 35.000 transactions on our platform.

Moreover, Whole Surplus takes incentives to increase food waste awareness in public and government. The company closely works with the government to improve the food banking system and to reach zero waste/hunger in Turkey. Tax advantages of donations to food banks have been increased with our proposal to the government and proposed regulations to enable food donations and waste management.

Thanks to our impact, Whole Surplus has been supported by several global and national awards such as UNDP, the European Investment Bank, MIT Solve, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

What are your aspirations for the future? We’ve heard about your intentions to expand to Italy, Russia and Germany. Could you please elaborate on your expansion plans into these markets?

Whole Surplus plans to expand its operations abroad within 2021. The expansions will help to digitalize ongoing surplus food management operations, reduce the workload and provide a transparent management systems in selected countries by helping the environment and society.

Italy generates 6 Million tonnes of food each year. The value of the surplus generated amounts to about 13 billion €. On the other hand, yearly food waste in Russia was 17 million tonnes. According to the Russian Association of Electronic Communications and the TIAR-Center, the economic value of the wasted foods in Russia accounted for EUR 25 billion. Russian government has no programs or plans on reducing food waste or recycling it. Its focus is mostly on recycling the toxic waste. Almost all the food waste generated in the country is going under the ground. Loss of biodiversity and loss of agricultural lands to landfilling is among the other problems Russia and Italy are facing. These countries food waste amount is very high, but they don’t have any infrastructure or knowledge to manage their food waste effectively. That's why these countries are great for expanding our business model and establishing effective management systems.

One of other target countries Germany had an accumulated food waste of 10.87 million tons according to the Federal Government of Germany. In Germany, the economic value of the food waste accounted for EUR 5.156 billion in 2018 according to Federal Government. Germany’s agricultural minister announced that the food waste in whole country will be decreased by half until 2030 that accounts for 5.5 million tons of food waste. Germany has the highest number food banks compared to the other European countries with over 900 of them, called “Die Tafel”, which buy the unused foods and match with the ones who need. Other than most of other EU countries, Germany is using recycling bins much more often and the unused food coming from recycling bins are used for biotransformation and biogas production. Germany has the right digital infrastructure and awareness for surplus management; however, the technology is expansive. That’s why our holistic solution becomes more feasible than the others.

By 2050 through the expansions, we aim to create a multi-stake partner ecosystem in the EMEA region. The long-term vision is to shed a light to end waste and hunger by collecting a very large data set to be able to provide real-time insight on food surplus based on SKU, time, location and amount to better manage production, procurement and distribution decisions and allocate surplus in line with the Food Recovery Hierarchy.

What advice would you give to consumers and companies to become more sustainable?

First of all, we need to increase our awareness about waste and surplus concepts. After that identifying the root causes must come. To be able to identify root causes you need to measure, to be able to do that you need have data. Keeping data, measuring and doing continues improvements would let them prevent food waste at the source. Which is the most beneficial technique to become more sustainable.

Second step should be following a more circular food system. Nowadays food systems are becoming circular, which means the output or waste can be used as a input of another product. In this way, you can create the maximum financial, social and environmental value from your surplus food.

As consumers we should know that we are responsible for nearly %50 of the Food Waste, which directly affect carbon emission and indirectly water footprint. Basically, each time you throw away a half of apple, you also throwing away the water that is used in the production stage, as well as the carbon emission that is occurred during transportation of it to us. Small changes in life such as, planned shopping, fridge organization and meal preparation may help to decrease our personal effect on Food Waste Problem.