Oscar Ekponimo, the Nigerian inventor of a web app improving food accessibility and affordability for poverty-stricken people, had his “epiphany” when he was strolling the aisles of a supermarket in 2014 and unearthed a can of tuna that was about to expire.
“I pulled [the can] off the shelf and I said to the shopkeeper, ‘Hey look, expiring in a matter of a week,’” the 31-year-old software engineer explained. They were “throwing away food that was still consumable because it had reached its expiry date.”
Today, Ekponimo’s app Chowberry, notifies retailers in real-time when their food items are approaching expiry and lets them initiate discounts on them, which allows non-governmental organizations to distribute them to needy people. Through the app, those organizations can order products listed by Chowberry’s partner retail shops, receive a unique code which they present at stores and then take the food home.
The discounts, which can reach up to 75 percent, increase as their sell-by date approaches.
It’s one approach to a global problem. Despite a billion people around the world experiencing hunger, up to one-third of all food is destroyed post-harvest and through transportation, or is thrown away by consumers and stores, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
In Nigeria, which has over 182 million people, making it Africa’s most populated country, 60 percent of people live below the poverty line, on less than $1 a day, according to the World Food Program (WFP). Ekponimo hopes to make even a small difference.
Ekponimo’s inspiration to develop Chowberry came from his personal experience with hunger.
When the software engineer was 11 years old, his father, who worked in construction in Calabar, a small town in Nigeria’s south, had a partial stroke. It left him unable to work and provide for his wife and four children. Ekponimo’s mother, a nurse, was forced to take care of him and keep working in a desperate attempt to provide for the family.
“There were times where we only had one wholesome meal in two days,” said Ekponimo. This consisted mostly of rice, the local staple garri, which is made from fried cassava plant, beans and packaged milk. The family relied on extended relatives and friends for handouts and leftovers.
They got back on their feet a few years later after Ekponimo’s father recovered, but Ekponimo vowed he would help provide relief to those facing a similar situation.
While studying computer science at the University of Calabar, he began organizing food drives. After winning the young innovator category of the 2013 International Telecommunications Union (ITU) award with a prototype that eventually guided the development of Chowberry, which saw him receive a $5,000 grant, Ekponimo officially launched the app a year later.
“Our value proposition is simple: prevent what would otherwise be wasted from going to waste, redirect the food to those that need it the most,” said Ekponimo. It’s not an easy sell, though. When he approached the shop selling the completely edible tuna about to expire in 2014, and explained to them the concept behind Chowberry, “they were not so welcoming.”
He kept going, though, continuing to develop the app and approach retailers to get them interested. Eventually, he found some who were.
Raphael Emakpor, the supervisor of Health Trust Pharmacy and Stores, a shop in a residential area of Abuja, said Ekponimo approached them about Chowberry last year. They immediately wanted to get involved. Emakpor said goods were normally bought from the store at a discounted rate of about 50 to 80 percent, with the price of cornflakes, semolina, rice, groundnut oil and cereals usually slashed.
“[The] innovation is wonderful in the sense that the target is to feed the [needy]” and the people internally displaced by the conflict in the northeast, Emakpor told Malnutrition Deeply. “Innovations don’t just come [along] like that.”
Chowberry now have a team of nine in Abuja working with a total of 20 retailers there and across Lagos, a city of 20 million people. Chowberry also partners with local charities Hold My Hands Women and Youth Development Foundation, Thrifty Slayer and Afro Global Care Foundation.
By 2017, Chowberry was assisting 20,000 households across Nigeria, according to Ekponimo, and the app receives six thousand daily visits. In 2016, Ekponimo was the only African among the five people named a Young Laureate in the Rolex Enterprise Award. He was also declared one of Time magazine’s Next Generation Leaders of 2017.
His next step is to keep expanding. While convincing small retailers of the app’s worth has been easy, trying to get retail giants to join forces with the team hasn’t been as straightforward because of their location and bureaucratic limitations.
Yet he is determined that “we will expand to resolve the problem higher up the value chain to major distributors and manufactures to reduce waste and facilitate the redistribution to households.” And he plans to go beyond Nigeria’s borders. There have already been expressions of interest from Brazil and Argentina.