The Cypriot start-up, RescuedBox, is implementing a simple solution for the consumption of ‘ugly’ fruits and vegetables. It simply buys them from producers, packs them in a box and delivers them to its customers.
"We rescue fresh fruits and vegetables that are rejected by supermarkets because of their size, shape and aesthetics, and we undertake to deliver them to our customers' homes," explains RescuedBox founder Malvina Nicolaou.
RescuedBox's short journey, having started its commercial operation in September 2020, demonstrates Cyprus has a market which is increasingly concerned about sustainability and is willing to change what and how it consumes with the environment in mind. If we consider Cyprus, due to its size, as a pilot market, then similar markets exist elsewhere.
"Food waste is not only a humanitarian or social concern. When we waste food, we also waste natural and energy resources, for example, the water needed to grow crops, the cost of transporting and packaging food. It is estimated that about 25% of the water used is wasted every year," she says.
The selection of produce included in the box is seasonal and is based on the availability of each week. If any customers have any allergies or don’t like specific produce, RescuedBox accommodates their customers’ needs. Cost-wise, fresh produce that does not meet aesthetic standards of big stores are much cheaper than those which meet the standards. Although aesthetic standards are prominent in the bigger stores of Cyprus, smaller establishments, such as local green grocers, tend not to have any aesthetic standards for their produce.
RescuedBox is a small family business, founded by Malvina Nicolaou. Following a career in digital marketing in London, she returned to Cyprus to pursue an entirely different career. Out of personal interest she started studying fruit and vegetable wastage.
"Over the last 4-5 years I have become very much aware of the environment, I am involved and in my daily life I try to change some things to cultivate this area to a personal degree, but also to try to promote a message, to change some of our habits so that we can help our environment. I wanted to get away a little bit from the part I was working in England and to focus my attention somewhere else that could help me grow as a person as well," explains Ms. Nicolaou on how she decided to go into entrepreneurship with a food waste reduction project.
The idea of efficient produce management turned into a business that she now runs with the help of her father. Requiring minimum initial capital to start and with no external investment, RescuedBox’s success so far has been purely the result of the hard work put in by its small team. The project was well received by the public and she no longer considers it a niche consumer market. Furthermore, it has been a positive development for local producers who have found an additional source of income. RescuedBox has so far rescued over 100 tons of produce and aims to reach 500 tons by the end of 2022.
There is no direct competition in Cyprus, while internationally, Ms Nicolaou identified similar efforts, albeit with a different focus, offering lower priced food that is close to its expiry date.
RescuedBox operates through its website rescuedbox.com, where customers become subscribers and can choose between 3 different box sizes:
- Small: up to 3 types of fruit & 7 varieties of vegetables (ideal for 1-2 people), at a cost of €10,90.
- Medium: up to 4 types of fruit & 8 varieties of vegetables (ideal for 2-3 people), at a cost of €14,40.
- Large: up to 4 types of fruit & 9 varieties of vegetables (ideal for 4-5 people), at a cost of €17,90.
RescuedBox has managed to accumulate approximately 250 subscribers, having peaked at 300 at the height of the pandemic.
Deliveries are made every Monday and Tuesday - morning to late afternoon with free delivery in Nicosia, Larnaca, Limassol, Famagusta and the British bases of Akrotiri, Episkopi & Dekeleia, with each region having one dedicated driver, with the exception of Nicosia which has two. Soon they aim to expand their service to Paphos as well. Their delivery service is currently outsourced to another company; however they aim to own their own delivery vans later on.
The packaging and picking of the produce is done by herself, her father and one employee early in the morning on the same day deliveries take place. Since RescuedBox know beforehand the number of boxes they will need to deliver, they ensure that the picking and packaging process involves no waste. Even the small number of the leaves that might need to be taken off or fall from cabbage are taken and given to be used as animal feed. Additionally, no plastic is used in the boxes they use for delivery.
The promotion and development of RescuedBox’s customer base is done through social media, focusing on engaging with its customers as much as possible while also emphasising the importance of environmentally friendly promotion, meaning no printed promotional banners or leaflets that would eventually be discarded.
"There is a steady customer base, we know what we need to deliver and depending on demand we only buy what is needed. We don't throw anything away!" explains Ms. Nicolaou.
At the same time, the company also helps people in need.
"We send 10% of our boxes every week free of charge to families in need. We want to get the message across that we are not only here to save fruits and vegetables, but also to help our fellow citizens," she notes.
RescuedBox is a business that is paying off financially and Ms Nicolaou is also exploring opportunities for expansion in new markets, specifically Greece. In the short to medium term, RescuedBox plans to expand its networks with the producers association and soon will also be available on the food delivering app, Foody.
"There are some thoughts about the next step but for now we are focusing on what we have now, to see that everything is in order, that it is viable and then we can move on to the next stages," she says.
Companies delivering ‘ugly’ produce have started to emerge in many countries, such as the UK and US. Fundamentally, they all have a similar focus on sustainability and reducing waste in the fresh produce industry. Some of these companies, such as Imperfect Foods and Misfits Market, both US-based startups, not only offer a variety of ‘ugly’ fresh produce, but also offer products made by using such produce, as well as going even further by offering all the products one could buy for their weekly grocery shopping.
Presently, RescuedBox does not face direct competition and overall, started in an ideal time, during the pandemic, when Cypriots became far more open to online shopping and delivery services. Although the vaccine rollout and the slow, and at times precarious, return to ‘normality’ in our daily life may see a drop in demand for online delivery services, RescuedBox has put much greater emphasis on its environmental focus, rather than that of convenience.