Komal Ahmad developed Copia, a San Francisco-based organization which uses an algorithm-based smartphone app to re-route excess food or food that would otherwise go to waste to the needy. Bay Area organizations can use the app to send their unconsumed food to the nearest food banks or anti-hunger organizations, alleviating both the landfills and hungry stomachs of San Francisco.
Food Tank had the opportunity to speak with Komal Ahmad, founder and CEO of Copia.
Food Tank (FT): What inspired you to start Copia?
Komal Ahmad (KA): Food is a fundamental human right. Extreme food waste in the presence of extreme hunger is one of the most disturbing, yet solvable, paradoxes of our time. Businesses throw away millions of pounds of food while others starve, and these groups often live across the street from each other. This is ethically and economically inefficient. We have shown that there is a huge financial opportunity within all of this inefficiency and found a way to tap into it. The problem became apparent when I was training to become a Naval Officer and MD, as I began to realize that much of the homeless population I encountered were veterans. This hit home for me in a very real way and inspired me to create a tangible solution that can change the reality that 50 million Americans face hunger every day. We’ve built a scalable platform and company that enables businesses to seamlessly request a pickup of their excess food, instead of throwing it away or composting it. The food is picked up and delivered to feed communities in need in real time. We founded this company as a way to easily and effectively feed the hungry; save money by lowering disposal and overproduction costs; and reduce methane by keeping food out of landfills.
FT: What is the inspiration behind Copia’s tech-savvy business model?
KA: One day, I received a call from one of Berkeley’s dining hall managers. He told me that hardly anyone attended an event, and they had 500 sandwiches leftover that needed to be picked up within two hours, or else they would be thrown away. I rushed out of class to do the food recovery myself. At the time, I didn’t own a personal vehicle, so I rented a Zipcar. This is perishable food, so it needs to move as quickly as possible. It took me 30 minutes to load all of the food into the trunk, and then I embarked on a hunt to find a nonprofit to accept all the food. I called dozens of nonprofits: one-third of them didn’t answer the phone, one-third said they were okay for the day, and the last one-third said they could take 10–15 sandwiches. “Great,” I thought to myself, “Now I have 485 sandwiches, and I’m on the side of the road.”
I asked myself why it was so hard to do a good thing; why was it so hard to do the right thing? As Murphy’s Law would have it, my Zipcar reservation was expiring and couldn’t be extended because someone had booked the car right after me. My intense frustration at that moment led to inspiration: how cool would it be if the businesses that had food could instantly post when they have food and those nonprofits that need food could instantly post when they need food, and we could match these two entities instantly and clear the marketplace. That’s when the idea for Copia’s technology was born. Think match.com for excess food with an Uber-style food recovery and redistribution.
FT: What have been some successes using this model?
KA: We’ve recovered more than 350,000 kilograms of food that fed nearly 700,000 people in the Bay Area. We are on our way to achieving our goal of feeding one million people this year. In doing so, we’ve helped our customers (businesses that donated food) claim over US$4.6 million dollars in tax savings.
FT: What do you hope to do with Copia in the coming years?
KA: Scale the platform globally to solve the world’s dumbest problem: hunger.
FT: In your experience, what are some problems that you have seen with food distribution? What’s the core insight or innovation that differentiates your organization from others? How is your solution significantly better than what currently exists?
KA: Despite national efforts by government and charity organizations, issues of hunger and food waste are intensifying and taking a huge toll on the environment, as well as on the health and safety of our communities. It’s clear that in order to eradicate these issues, we need to develop sustainable, scalable solutions that utilize technology to streamline impact. While existing organizations share the same mission as Copia, they fail to realize that hunger in the United States occurs not due to a lack of food, but due to an inequitable distribution of it. The traditional telephone-based food donation coordination is cumbersome and inefficient. Copia aggregates the supply curve with a revolutionary new technology: smartphones. Because our project is more automated—involving more integration between software and drivers—Copia is systematic, formal, and replicable. Nonprofits have relied on inexperienced—though well-intentioned—volunteers, with results often leaving would-be food donors unsatisfied and unlikely to donate again. We’ve realized the traditional method of coordinating food donations over the phone is fraught with inefficiencies. Often people end up with excess food and are unable to locate and contact the people who need it most when they need it most. We created Copia to remedy this by using the speed and accessibility of smartphones. Copia’s technology is now able to close the communication gaps that exist across all food recovery systems. By using an online and mobile platform, we are able to feed more people faster while simultaneously eliminating food waste.
FT: When dealing with high volumes of donated food, how do you ensure food safety and freedom from liability?
KA: Copia is the most legally safe, seamless, and reliable way to end hunger. We deliver most food donations within an hour of picking them up.
How Copia protects food providers from liability:
- Every nonprofit organization that Copia provides recovered food to signs a Hold Harmless and Indemnity Agreement that protects, indemnifies, defends, and holds harmless our food providers and their respective employees, contractors, and volunteers (as well as us) against all claims or damages. This agreement was drafted and executed by the CEO of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP himself.
- Our Food Heroes (drivers and food packers) and employees are ServSafe certified and undergo enhanced background screenings. We ensure they have the proper training and experience required to mitigate contamination risk. We use temperature-controlled bags and containers (or refrigerated trucks for larger donations) to ensure all food is delivered to the appropriate nonprofits in the best possible condition.
- Copia carries a one million dollar insurance policy that provides additional protection for our food donors, as well as the food, while in transit.
- Food donors are protected from civil and criminal liability under both state and federal laws (see Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act) when donating leftover food through Copia’s platform. This law was passed in 1996 and since then no person has gotten sick, and no lawsuit or legal claim has been filed due to the donation of excess food.
- Copia assumes responsibility for the logistics of collecting, transporting, and maintaining the safety of, as well as distributing, apparently wholesome excess food to food-insecure people. Our industry-leading practices, along with federal protections, prudently mitigate litigation risk.
FT: What has been a memorable moment for you since the launch of Copia?
KA: I just returned to the San Francisco Bay from the Women in the World Summit in New York City, where I was honored as Toyota’s Mother of Invention. This was one of the greatest honors in my professional and personal career. We even got coverage in People and Huffington Post! Through this, Copia elicited an extremely positive response, increased new customer onboarding, and generated significant investor interest.