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Tech savvy

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Ahead of the Borough Market Food Tech Village pop-up, co-founder of YFood and founder of Food Tech Week Nadia El Hadery talks about sustainability, disrupting the food ecosystem, and the importance of collaboration when it comes to effecting change

What is London Food Tech Week and how did it come about?
I was working in the City and building up a business. We ran into some problems, so I set up a series of meetings called Food Tech Wednesdays to try to resolve them. Through these, I identified three key issues within the food industry: first, a lack of transparency when it comes to problems within the industry; second, a lack of willingness to invest, which made it hard to get businesses off the ground. The third thing we realised was, because of the nature of food and the supply chain, it’s important to encourage the big and the little to work together, with the view that the little would make the big a bit nimbler and more positive in what they were doing, and the big would help them be financially stronger, scalable, and have better access to clients. That was what we wanted to achieve when we created London Food Tech Week: a platform to bring everybody together in a high energy, fun, dynamic way, and create partnerships and opportunities to innovate within the food industry.

What do you mean by ‘food tech’?
Any new technological innovation that has a relevance to the food value chain, from farm to fork. It’s all-encompassing—if you’re really going to look at where there might be opportunities for efficiency, a better business model or food ecosystem, you really need to look at the system as a whole.

Food Tech Week is in its third year now. How has it evolved?
It’s definitely grown, but probably not in the way you might think—we actually have fewer events this year. The events are bigger and each day has a central location, from which everything’s walkable. They’re still independent events, it’s just better structured. There’s more citizen stuff happening too, such as the Food Tech Village at Borough Market. It’s really exciting for us: we really want to engage the people of London in what’s happening, rather than it be entirely business-to-business.

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What can we expect from the Food Tech Village?
What we think is so exciting about tech is, when you start applying it the food industry, it creates opportunities for things to be more sustainable and better for the food ecosystem, but in a way that’s commercially viable—which means there’s more chance of it being adopted. Some of the things you can see at the Food Tech Village are innovations that address the challenges within the food industry, so for example the huge issues that surround excessive meat consumption worldwide, the impact that’s having on the environment, how we currently mass produce it and the impact that’s having on the produce itself, via innovations in natural alternative protein sources such as micro algae or insect protein.

Another big trend we’ll address is global urbanisation, and what that means for the food industry. How we get food into cities and local growing is a big topic, so looking at ways to grow things like micro-herbs and salads in the city, in a controlled and efficient environment. We’ll be looking at ways to address food waste, so using surplus food to create other products. We’ve got somebody who uses wonky veg to make hummus, someone who creates natural cosmetics out of surplus vegetables. Borough Market is a good fit for us—our values are aligned. There are differences, but in terms of what we stand for and believe in, we’re very much on the same page.

What role do you think food tech has in addressing these sorts of issues on a larger scale?
The food industry has been notoriously inefficient. It’s not reported on itself properly, it’s been incredibly wasteful, it can be quite pressurised, so even in terms of basic analytics it has a big role to play—reporting on food waste, for example, and driving efficiency in that way. Also, things like the food expiry label. It hasn’t seen any innovation since the 1960s, which is ludicrous. Think about each individual foodstuff’s journey and the impact that has on its shelf life—yet we stick on a blanket label and follow it, as though it can legitimately tell us when to bin something. When you consider these sorts of things, you start to see how technology could be really powerful if used correctly.

Have there been positive developments in recent years?
I think we’re on the cusp of seeing huge impact, particularly in terms of food waste—there are quite a few different ways it’s being addressed and we’ve started saving tonnes of waste. For example, a company called Bio-bean collects up waste coffee grounds and converts it into bio fuel that powers buses. We’ve started seeing new applications in business models: Farmdrop, for example, cuts out supermarkets and connects farmers directly with consumers. They’re not storing the produce at all, and it delivers real time ordering data directly to the farmers, which completely challenges the system. That could have a huge impact, if it can be proved to work widescale.

What’s the next big thing?
I think reducing food waste is a really interesting space—and it definitely should be. In terms of our own goals and objectives, we really want to create a platform that helps facilitate connections between the right people, to implement these innovations, develop them, and enable us to all work cohesively to roll that out. We’re the facilitator for the community, that’s what we do—anything that has a scalable, positive impact on the food industry is something we’re very much behind.