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Alumni profile - Nathan Benitez

I actually launched afoodible at Queen Mary during Freshers’ Fair and one of the reasons for this was the Green Mary campaign here and also the fact that it was during my first year of university and on campus that I was really struck with a vision for the direction I wanted afoodible to take... Afoodible allow users to better manage their food diary, to waste less food and to save more money.

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What sparked your desire to study English and why did you choose Queen Mary in particular? Growing up, I studied at Munich International School and was quite limited in what I could study but I had always had an interest in the arts. Reading, being part of plays, and utilising my creative side all sparked my interest to study English. In terms of Queen Mary, a few of my friends had applied and having spent so much time outside of the UK (I was born in the UK but grew up in Singapore before moving to Munich) I really wanted to study in London. English at Queen Mary fell within the top ten in the league tables at the time and I loved the location of the Mile End campus. The diversity of modules further appealed to me, I was able to choose modules that tipped over into philosophy and which were based in the classics, argument and debate – all of which I was very fond of.

I understand that you are the founder of the food waste and food management app afoodible. How was the idea for your app conceived? Initially I wanted to pioneer something that would give people a creative edge and desire to cook outside of their normal cooking portfolio. When I came to Queen Mary my idea evolved to become more sustainable and ethical in terms of targeting food waste. Living on campus and sharing a fridge with 6-8 people gave me first-hand experience of food waste. One thing I noticed was that we were using the same food staples, but different methods of cooking, such as incorporating different spices. I realised that minor changes could give us an array of foods that we had never encountered before. Therefore, I wanted to create an app that would connect people who had a passion for cooking, expand peoples’ cooking portfolios and further enable them to get the most out of a limited budget, all the while minimising food waste.

I had two questions in mind – how do we minimise food waste and how do we better educate people into simply not throwing food away? Often, people judge what goes off by other senses such as smell, touch and sight, rather than some of the arbitrary expiry dates manufacturers put on food. Growing up in a European country and being around Germans and Italians especially, I have a different perspective on how to creatively extend expiry dates which I have embedded into afoodible. Another fantastic feature within afoodible is that it allows you to plan and share your food with others if you have too much food or if you are going away. Overall, afoodible strives to allow you to better manage your food diary, to waste less food and to save more money.

What does afoodible currently offer users? There are four main features in our current offering: plan, track, create and share. Afoodible is a free application that allows users to plan the meals they want to eat for the rest of the week or month via our virtual shopping basket, track your fresh and expiring food in your virtual fridge,  create meals out of food soon to expire with our recipe generator with over 250k recipes, and share their own recipe creations on the afoodible platform with friends, family and the wider afoodible community.

We’re always upgrading and updating our platform, but we’re incredibly passionate about food waste and the economical and environmental by-products of what we can already do. We are currently engaging other waste-minded organisations, FareShare being one of them, to promote us far and wide and to target users who don’t necessarily have a disposable income to be able to rely on subscription based food delivery services to generate recipes and ingredients for them.

How have you found the development journey of afoodible to date? It was, and still is, a steep learning curve but an experience I would choose over and over again. There’s a lot of work involved in starting up and getting things going, especially when you don’t really know where to begin. What was tough at the start was finding a focus and prioritising what was important, but the closer I got the more things fell into place. It’s always going to take time to convince people of an idea that you’re passionate about, but once you strike the right tone (and evolve it in ways that make it better for the user) you come away with a much better product. It is the evolution of afoodible, and the growing number of users we are converting by the day, that have made this development journey worthwhile – but we do have a long way to go still. I have also made a lot of mistakes and spent a lot of time and energy on lessons learned, which is why I have set up a consultancy to help students in my situation who don’t necessarily have the funds or the experience, but they have a good idea - they can stress test and workshop certain ideas, learn from my journey and set out on theirs.

Luckily some of the relationships I’ve forged over time have been far more tech savvy than I am, and certain business partnerships have helped afoodible get to the stage that it is at today. Generally, people in the food tech industry who have a sustainable mind-set tend to be united in the ethical cause of reducing waste and the battle to reduce plastics, so I have felt supported thus far. I actually launched afoodible at Queen Mary during Freshers’ Fair and one of the reasons for this was the Green Mary campaign here and also the fact that it was during my first year of university and on campus that I was really struck with a vision for the direction I wanted afoodible to take.

In today’s market, it also helps that there is a financial incentive in becoming more sustainable and being sustainability focused. For example, companies like Asda, Sainsburys and Tesco are launching their own initiatives to make people more conscious about the food they eat and the food that they throw away – this is exactly what we’re fighting for so I’m happy that there’s more of a light being shone on these topics.

You mentioned that you gave up your job to be able to pursue your app full time, what was it that you were doing before? I started off in recruitment and I then pursued several roles in business development and sales, but I had always had a side interest in technology. My experience in sales helped when I had to pitch my app and my business development experience helped when pursuing new ventures and funding grants. All of my experiences to date have contributed to the progress of afoodible.

Just to go back to the tech consultancy programme that you founded, can you describe this in more detail? If you ask my friends and family, they will tell you that I had been talking about afoodible for ages before actively kick starting the development process to get it to where it is today. No one really prepares you, especially if you are a one-man band, or if you don’t have the connections that myself or others have been privy to. I applied to Queen Mary’s QIncubator programme and it is my involvement in this programme which inspired me to want to help others with their journey. I accepted a lot of advice since I wasn’t getting much advice before this programme. The main principle I teach through my coaching is to learn from and move on from failure and that it is better to really think about an idea and plan the project before you commit to anything.

I can imagine that the possibilities for your app are endless, do you have ideas of how you want your app to evolve in the future? The next part of our journey is the ‘share’ element we’ve just released. Our aim with this is to create a global community of people who want to learn, create and share new recipes whilst wasting less food. Through continued user testing, the feedback we received from different demographics was always the same; people want to share their own food experiences. So, this is something we’ve acted upon with our new afoodible features.

Other features that we’re looking at involve ways of giving users creative means to fight food waste and reduce over-purchasing. We’re testing anything and everything to improve the user experience and get closer to automating the full shopping experience. We would love to connect with supermarkets to make this a reality.

We collaborated with FareShare earlier in the year on a food waste campaign where people had to tag five friends, donate five pounds and use five ingredients to make a meal. Afoodible was used exclusively as the app partner allowing users inspiration on the go. These campaigns and incredible organisations only give us more ambition to fight the food waste fight and help as many of those involved along the way.

You mentioned you were involved in QIncubator. Can you explain what this is for those that don’t know and what did your experience of this programme involved? QIncubator is an accelerator that encourages students who either have an idea or who want to attend a workshop to be part of an idea, to go through certain stages to understand more about creating a business. It involves a few days’ workshop and at the end of the workshop, after each idea is pitched, the best is chosen and given a small amount of funding. Individuals in industry are also invited to participate in the workshops too. Because I already had my idea, my role was to act as a coach or mentor. It was a very interesting and rewarding experience; it was nice to see that there was an outlet for students to have a mini workshop experience and to test their creativity and ideas.

Is there any advice you would give to current students or recent graduates considering their career options? And then to those individuals who may have their own idea and who are eager to develop it. Current students and recent graduates - be patient and allow yourself to continue learning – learning doesn’t stop outside of university and sometimes it’s about finding opportunities that work for you rather than the other way around. There’s often an expectation of quick success because we’re so used to seeing the end result, but that comes with hard work and perseverance. The same applies with a new idea you may be looking to develop.

If you have an idea for a project or product and you’re still at university, get involved in accelerator programmes – investors are more likely to support more developed projects. Constantly workshop your ideas to those around you and try to get together with like-minded people. It’s always good to set yourself goals but unrealistic ones can be a hindrance. Lessons are more often learned from failure than successes so learn to fail quickly so you can move on to your successes.

What was so special about your time at Queen Mary? The overall experience. The University itself is very well placed and in turn it attracts a diverse student and staff body. The amount of people that I got to know from all walks of life, made Queen Mary feel like home where I had grown up outside of the UK. In terms of the development of my application, this diversity helped massively; being exposed to different nationalities, cultures, beliefs, religions, foods and cooking styles has helped afoodible allow for a number of dietary filters and for people to input absolutely anything into the app. Afoodible is one of the only apps out there with an extensive and diverse database of recipes continuously growing as users upload their own recipes from all over the world.

This profile was conducted by Alumni Engagement Officer, Nicole Brownfield. If you would like to get in touch with Nathan or engage him in your work, please contact Nicole at n.brownfield@qmul.ac.uk