MAURITIUS — Food insecurity and food waste are two issues that go hand-in-hand. The latter results in a global economic loss of about $750 billion annually, considering the waste of land, labor, water and energy used to grow, transport, store and cook the food. These worldwide issues are no exception to Mauritius, a small island in the Indian Ocean with a population of about 1.2 million. In fact, 17% of Mauritians endure food insecurity, yet on the other hand, one-third of the food produced in Mauritius goes to waste, according to the social enterprise FoodWise.
Food Insecurity and Food Waste in Mauritius
Prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, food insecurity already stood as a great global concern. However, global food prices have doubled since mid-2020 due to the pandemic disrupting global supply chains. In Mauritius, this issue was further accentuated by “inflation, depreciation of the rupee, adverse climatic conditions and unemployment.” Families are now having to reduce purchases of essential food supplies and many are obliged to skip meals.
Food insecurity in Mauritius is rising, yet, contradicting this, the country also notes a high rate of food wastage. According to statistics from a 2021 report of the United Nations Environment Programme on food wastage, in Mauritius, citizens waste 118,632 tons of food annually, equivalent to 325 tons of wasted food in a day or 279 kilos going to waste every minute.
On top of that, the impact of food waste goes far beyond what meets the eye considering its economic and environmental consequences. “Globally, wasted food accounts for about 8% of all greenhouse gas emissions,” The Washington Post says, and represents a significant economic cost that could have gone toward community investments.
To make matters worse, the average Mauritian struggles to afford healthy foods, instead relying on cheap but unhealthy and nutrient-poor local street food. Due to this, in 2021, the prevalence of diabetes in Mauritius stood at more than 22% for the population aged 20 to 79, giving Mauritius an eighth-place ranking for the highest rates of diabetes globally.
The Founding of FoodWise
These food-related issues did not go unseen by Rebecca Espitalier-Noël, a young and driven Mauritian who had always been interested in the social aspects of issues in Mauritius thanks to her mother and grandmother, but who also inherited her father’s entrepreneurial spirit.
In an interview with The Borgen Project, Espitalier-Noël says, after studying political science abroad in Paris, she found a way to mix both of these aspects when she discovered more about social entrepreneurship. Thanks to enriching studies and conversations with people she encountered throughout her years abroad, she came to focus on the issue of food waste in particular as she saw the mismatch between the people who needed food and the food waste generated by large companies on the island.
Therefore, with the help of her co-founders: Mathieu Appasamy, Béatrice Espitalier-Noël, Julia Venin, Charles de Speville, Ingrid d’Arifat and Sarah Paturau; the social enterprise FoodWise came about in 2019. At FoodWise, the goal is to bridge the social, environmental and economic food gap that is generated by food waste by producing solutions for businesses to save food while positively impacting the lives of people in need.
The Importance of Nutrition
As the managing director of FoodWise, Espitalier-Noël understands the importance of a well-nourished population, not only for their personal well-being but also for the economic well-being of the country as a whole. She explains that a well-nourished individual is likely to get ill, implying better overall health, which ultimately translates to more present and productive work/school days.
Many children go to school hungry, which severely impacts their learning capabilities as the brain has a hard time focusing without fuel. Similarly, some parents do not send their kids to school without food out of embarrassment, revealing how inequality is a vicious circle. On a more personal level, a poor diet has a definite impact on one’s mental health and can also lead to decreased energy levels. Conversely, a sugar-rich diet may lead to hyperactivity or aggressivity in children.
An Efficient Redistribution Scheme
In order to fill this food gap, FoodWise collaborates with many different types of donors. The most sizeable donors are importers of foodstuff from foreign countries to Mauritius. FoodWise also works alongside manufacturers who produce food locally; growers of fruits and vegetables; restaurants; hotels; caterers and more.
Espitalier-Noël says a lot of canvassing went into finding these donors at first, but thanks to the internet, which offers a huge database, and the perks of being on a small island where word-of-mouth spreads quickly, FoodWise managed to connect with many donors. Coming into contact with associations such as the Association of Mauritian Manufacturers also boosted FoodWise’s range, eventually leading to the point where entities would contact FoodWise, instead of the other way around.
When it comes to its beneficiaries, FoodWise operates ‘back to back,’ meaning that it collaborates with other local NGOs that then redistribute to their beneficiaries all over the island as FoodWise operates in 80 of the 100 localities of Mauritius.
FoodWise targets those in circumstances of disadvantage or poverty, therefore, FoodWise provides assistance to old age homes, homeless shelters, addiction treatment centers or shelters for abused women and children. The FoodWise team also delivers to schools and family support programs or to after-school centers. To date, the FoodWise team has collaborated with the majority of NGOs in Mauritius, enabling the organization to considerably boost its outreach.
Overall, the team at FoodWise managed to save 1 million kilos of food or 4 million meals in four years of operation, thanks to the help of their many partners and collaborators. The team at FoodWise has impacted the lives of hundreds of thousands of Mauritians thanks to their dedication and hard work, and it does not stop there. In the past year, the team has decided to diversify and go beyond redistribution as FoodWise recognizes the importance of education for a sustained positive impact on the population.
FoodWise has also started a new project — a meal program implemented in more than 10 schools so far to educate children in a fun and interactive way about the basics of nutrition. The team’s goal is to put an end to the vicious circle of poverty through education, a small step that would have a positive ripple effect on society. In continuation of this initiative, FoodWise also published a cookbook “Recettes 5*” (“Recipes 5*”) offering low-cost, nutrient-rich and delicious recipes that also limit waste and include healthy local ingredients.
These educational initiatives are scalable models and deal with the issue of poor nutrition at its root. FoodWise’s advocacy efforts also prove successful — it managed to change a law through collaboration with the minister of finance and the minister of health. Prior to this, the organization could not receive food from donors before the products reached the ‘best before’ dates.
Although this social enterprise has already made great achievements, the team has further ambitions. At the moment, FoodWise cannot control the food products received and sometimes has no choice but to redistribute food that is not nutrient-rich. Although it is better to eat something rather than nothing at all, the team at FoodWise is in the process of developing annotations of the nutritional value of the foods donated, something the enterprise did not have in place before.,
Moreover, another one of its challenges is to incentivize companies to collaborate with FoodWise. Although it costs companies nothing to do so, some still see it as a burden to leave their food aside for FoodWise to collect. To solve this issue, the idea is to create more structural change, which would be achieved through more advocacy efforts and changes in the law to foster more financial incentives or said companies.
Overall, Espitalier-Noël explains that her team’s goal is to expand the enterprise and develop new and creative ways to address food insecurity in Mauritius. As a relatively new social enterprise, the team is identifying its strengths and discovering the potential they have to impact the country further with new collaborations and innovative ways to close the food gap.
– Alexandra Piat
Photo: Courtesy of FoodWise