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IT trends spotted and checked by experts

Chief executive at Plan Zheroes

Ms Maria Ana Neves is chief executive at Plan Zheroes, a charity that works closely with the retail industry to cut food wastage and provide nourishment for those in need. She has a background in design...


Retailers slash food wastage with collaborative social network

30 Mar, 2015 08:16 am

A dedicated business social network is helping the restaurant and food retail industries to interact with charities and fight the food surplus, supplying meals to the hungry. With a staggering 650,000 tonnes of food wasted annually by retailers in the UK, dedicated technology is helping make the change.

Over the last couple of years, Plan Zheroes, an organisation focused on eliminating food wastage and helping the hungry, has set up a vital business social network that connects major retailers and the third sector. We can now take much more food before it is thrown out, and supply it to those in urgent need of nourishment.

Having worked for some time with phone-based processes, we decided an internet-based solution was necessary. In the past, when attempting to contact cafes and restaurants that have excess food, charities in need of food, and those in between transporting the items, extensive phone calls were necessary. When juggling literally tons of food, much of which would go off quickly, this was not a good enough solution.
Building a business social network

The need for change was clear. At Plan Zheroes, we work with a number of major retailers and cafes, including Paul UK, Le Pain Quotidien and Budgens, as well as other locations including the Langham Hotel and London's Borough Market. We also partner with charities including the Red Cross UK, New Horizon and the Abbey Centre. All of these organisations, and more, will access our system.

The volume of food to transport is huge. As an example, in eight months we were able to save at least nine tonnes of food from wastage at Borough market alone. That work provided 20,000 meals and helped 1,000 people in need.

Given the partners we work with and the sheer volume of food to transport, phoning around was not efficient enough to manage our processes, and we had to set up proper technology-based collaboration. Our answer was in the cloud, with a focused business social network that would resemble those used in people's free time, but that would have dedicated workplace features.

At the moment, the system is being used by early adopters. We believe that as more of the businesses and charities come on board, it will enable us to be much more efficient and will equally save them a lot of time.

For retailers, using the system is as simple as selecting the food available from a drop -down menu, and for the charities it is as easy as setting the delivery time they want to receive the products. Our volunteer drivers are then notified that there is a job available and they can reply to it. All of the functionality is available online and through smartphone apps.

Making it work

There are clear benefits to using a social network, starting with the ability to put all of the information in one place and connect everyone there. It is much easier for us to identify and match the different organisations, while being more straightforward for them to upload their offers and needs.

In 2013, we began to expand our online plans for the system, and realised it had to be easily accessible, while simply providing the functions needed so it is quick to use. On January 29 this year, we went live, and as we get more companies and charities on board, we are tweaking the technology to make it even more efficient.

By using cloud-based technology, it also gives us much more freedom as we don't have to constantly manage the infrastructure or handle a growing scale. While currently we have major activity in London, as well as Brighton, Sheffield, and Oxford, we have strong expansion plans, with pilots going ahead in Liverpool and soon we hope to be working in Wales.

We even have conversations going on with the Portuguese government as we view international expansion. We are keen not to grow beyond our abilities, and having the right tools in place helps us to handle this change.

With so many unknown factors, including the availability of food and of drivers, using a dedicated business social network enables us to control our operations much better. We can systematise effectively, by knowing the sources of food and the type generally available, the destinations in need, the drivers with time, and linking all of those factors together. 

Carrying out our job in fast-changing circumstances, and avoiding the stretch from scaling up quickly, are now much more realistic and manageable tasks.