Hungary: Tech start-ups tackling food waste

Interview: Two Hungarian start-ups with novel approaches towards tackling the issue of food waste

The Dutch version of this article was published in the latest Agrospecial Global approach to food losses.
Compocity's team using their eco-robot
©Compocity
Compocity's eco-robot uses gamification to incentivize the reduction of food waste.

The robot that makes compost from your lunch scraps

How does the reduction of food waste open windows of opportunity for companies in Hungary, and what are the current trends? Emese Pancsa, co-founder and CEO of the startup Compocity answers our questions first. Compocity has invented an “eco-robot” that collects food waste – And turns it into compost.

“It’s hard to get a clear picture right now because of the pandemic, but what is clear is that environmental awareness is now on the rise,” answers Ms. Pancsa. Their experience at Compocity is that wherever their devices, the “eco-robots” have been installed, the mindset of the users started to transform. “Mondays are the busiest for our machines. People bring in food waste from home after the weekend. They now think differently about throwing away food.”

The product, Compocity’s eco-robot, is an automated system that the company installs and maintains at partners’ facilities and offices. Ms. Pancsa spent a year of her postgraduate program in the Netherlands, at the Minerva Art Academy of the Hanza University with the Campus Mundi program. It was there that she, researching industrial hemp, found the microbe which would later become the basis of the food-recycling biochemical process that Compocity’s eco-robots use.

Okay, but what exactly is an eco-robot? “Well, it’s a robot in the sense that the device has sensors, smart applications, and operates autonomously, separating humidity from the dry material, processing the organic matter.” At this point I come across something else in their leaflet which makes me scratch out my next question. Education about food waste through games. Wait a second. Is this a gamification model for food waste? “Yes, that’s exactly the idea,” Ms. Pancsa answers. “The machine processes the data and produces a QR code that you can scan with your phone – And collect points for rewards. Or for example, you can join a cause. Say, you want to collect points for the cause of a kindergarten getting a new plane tree planted in their yard. And then – You get a notification, it just happened. Your points helped in getting those kids a new tree to play under.”

Since she studied in the Netherlands, my last question to Ms. Pancsa is this: How do Hungarians see food waste differently from the Dutch? “Well, our clients here in Hungary are happy to participate but they also want the compost to be taken from them, to be used for a good cause,” she replies. According to her, the Dutch are usually more inclined to see the input-output cycle of a circular economy, of a circular production for food, the potential uses of compost. “So maybe the difference is that in Hungary, our education has this gap in it. Our perception of ‘urban’ and ‘agriculture’ are as two very distant environments. But what I see is that the urban people here in Hungary who use our device are very open to innovations, and enthusiastic about learning new techniques. You could say that they are practically hungry for knowledge. So I think that what we could learn from the Dutch is best practices and acquiring new perspectives on circularity.”

Munch's food saving application
©Munch
Munch's application can currently reduce the food waste of participating businesses by 40% - The company is constantly working towards pushing that figure closer to 100%.

The app that I wish it existed when I was a student

Albert Wettstein of the company Munch is our second guest. Their company developed an app that connects hungry customers with restaurants and catering services who have leftover food. There’s a Dutch connection in this story as well. “I was in Amsterdam with friends, riding home from a party on the cargo rack of my friend’s bicycle when we stopped for some prime steaks for a killer price. What? 50% off for a steak? It was my first introduction to this idea.”

The idea being, reducing food waste through helping restaurants sell their leftover food. Munch developed a mobile app for this – But how does it work? “Our principle is this triangle sustainability model: Food awareness, environmental awareness and social awareness.”

Bringing together customers and restaurants with food they would otherwise throw out – or as the company calls it, munches –  is a bargain for everyone. It also reduces waste. However, the company also helps in feeding those in need with coupons for munches at drastically reduced prices, or even for free.

So how much food is saved this way? “We have saved about 30.000 meals so far and that number is constantly growing, Mr. Wettstein explains, “so let’s say the rule of thumb is roughly 40% of the restaurants’ food waste at this point. We are constantly working on pumping that percentage up, closer to 100%.” According to Munch’s information, there are many places in Budapest which always create more products than needed to bring a sufficiently wide variety for their customers – having to throw away a large number of goods daily. “One baker told us that they have to throw away goods worth €200 at the end of every day. Depending on the location of that bakery, Munch might help bring that number down to even zero,” Mr. Wettstein explains.

If we throw away that much food – I dread to even ask how Hungary is generally doing on the scene of reducing food waste. “Well, we’re actually somewhere in the middle. The USA has much higher food waste numbers – Other countries, much lower.” But, apparently, we’re actually not looking that bad? Even if we still have a long way to go? “Generally, Western and Northern Europe is 5-10 years ahead of us in the reduction of food waste. And we can use their techniques. The cultural distance here is very small,” Mr. Wettstein explains. “It’s relatively easy to learn and adapt their best practices with very little modification. Sure, we have to change up the communication side a bit, tinker with PR, but we really don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”