You see a misshapen pepper, an undersized peach or an oddly coloured apple. Divyansh Ojha sees an opportunity to reward farmers while improving access to affordable healthy eating in his community.
“All food deserves plates; all plates deserve food,” said the Ivey Business School HBA student.
Ojha understood the problems well: Despite more than half of all food produced in Canada being wasted, grocery stores still adhere to strict cosmetic standards – anything that looks or feels different is dumped. How could that be with 1-in-8 Canadians stull struggling to put food on the table?
FoodFund is Ojha’s attempt to even that rectify those numbers. His entrepreneurial venture gathers fruits and vegetables – both the imperfect in appearance and the surplus in nature – from southwestern Ontario farmers and delivers them weekly to the homes of subscribers within 70 kilometres of London.
“These fruits and vegetables are just as nutritious, delicious and fresh as all other produce. Just like people, produce comes in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and colours. We think such diversity should be accepted.”
Working through a network of more than 25 area farmers and five greenhouses, his customers can choose from a gamut of greens – from tomatoes and onions, to broccoli and zucchini, to apples, pears, lemons and kiwis. Since launching in summer 2017, following his first year at Western, Ojha has grown his business to more than 1,000 customers and his employees from two to 17.
“Much like other HBA students who want to pursue a career in finance or consulting, I thought that would be me. I tried to do that,” he said. “But I’ve had this business idea for a very long time. It was about keeping my eyes and ears open and looking for opportunities. I felt at that time it was my opportunity was now to take this on.”
And that opportunity is paying off.
Earlier this month, FoodFund was named the Grand Prize Winner of TELUS Pitch 2019, Canada’s largest small business competition. The company was chosen from a group of five who emerged from more than 6,400 entrants from across Canada.
With the $100,000 prize, Ojha plans to expand FoodFund’s operations, diversify its produce offering, and build a food literacy curriculum for elementary schools.
“It still doesn’t seem like it really happened. The last couple weeks have been a blur,” he said.
Born in India, and having lived in the Middle East and Australia prior to coming to Canada, Ojha has seen how different food systems work, how personal tastes and cultural norms shape them.
Canada is lucky to have so many resources, he said, but there are flaws in the system – and those flaws have nothing to do with how the food looks.
“India doesn’t have infrastructure we do when it comes to transporting and freight. So food goes to waste there for a totally different reason. They’re not picky about cosmetic standards. They don’t look at an apple and say, ‘It’s too small.’ It’s about transporting without spoiling.
“We have an easy problem to solve in Canada. We just need to wake up – you cannot have beauty standards for food. It’s terrible. It’s not just bad for the farmers, but it has larger impact.
Ojha continued, “It’s not entirely the grocery stores’ fault. They are just serving us what we want. It’s just human psychology. If there are two things, you’re going to go with the one that looks better. That’s going to be very hard to fight to overcome.”
Another hard fight involved initially convincing farmers and consumers to embrace the FoodFund idea.
For farmers, they had to be convinced there was no catch. Ojha simply wanted to purchase their excess or unattractive produce at a fair market price – produce, the farmers knew, that would otherwise be sold for pennies as livestock feed.
For consumers, they needed to shake the idea that this was just about food.
“It’s not necessarily the produce they’re signing up for. If they believe in living a more sustainable lifestyle, this is part of it. That’s what keeps people committed. They give it a try then find a sense of belonging to the cause, to the journey.”
Entering his last year at Ivey, Ojha has been running his business since first year. Not an easy task.
“I’ve survived so far,” he laughed. “It’s about managing your time. Lot of sleepless nights, for sure, but you have to do what you have to do when you have a passion you want to see through. That’s when you’re support system comes into play.
“It’s about being clear and setting sizeable goals. You need to feel as if you’re accomplishing something every day. There are days when I wish I could run faster and move quicker. But you need to know when to step back.”
While his name may be listed as ‘founder,’ he stresses the idea of ‘team’ in his success.
“You work for your team,” Ojha said. “Entrepreneurship is not something an individual does. If you can’t put together a team that believes in an idea, then you’re just an idea in paper. There’s a deep satisfaction when you see people grow. That is so rewarding; you continually crave that. It’s a nice cycle. You want to keep chasing that.”