Bringing Excess Food Back from the Brink

loading Calvin Chan Yi Xuan giving a talk at TEDxBayanLepas in April this year.

Calvin Chan Yi Xuan was barely 20 years old when he won the Penang Green Idol, an annual competition organised by the Penang Green Council to reward and encourage youths engaged in environmental issues.

Today, the 23-year-old is the founder and director of Green Hero, an online platform that sells surplus food at discounted prices to a ready pool of college and university students, people struggling on a tight budget and other green activists.

“Students make up a big part of my customers. We only deliver outside the eateries’ operating hours, so students who are up late come to us for something to eat. They also live on a tight budget, so they enjoy the sushi and bread that we sell at reduced prices,” Chan says.

On average, a box of premium sushi retailing at RM20 is sold at only RM8 by Green Hero. Customers can also enjoy premium bread at 30-40% off retail price.

Chan with the core members of Green Heroes. (From left) Keeran Shaman Shahbudin (Graphic Designer), Varmah Ramesh (IT Support), Joshua Ong Xin Zhi (Head of Marketing), Mozes Ong Xin Yong (CTO, Mobile Stack developer), Lim Shan Yong (CFO, Accountant) and Chan himself. The social enterprise currently has 15 part-time employees taking on various roles, from drivers to sales representatives.

The idea for Green Hero came from a late-night stroll with his partner at Lebuh Victoria, where eateries abound. “It was quite late when we saw a waiter coming out of a food outlet and throwing away a bag of good pastries. I told my partner that this was an issue we needed to address. A lot of food is being wasted – I can guarantee you that there are people wasting food right now. We have to realise that filling the landfill does not add value to the community,” Chan says.

And he’s right. The state government estimated that in 2017, Penang folk were wasting up to 700,000 kg of food daily. Most food wastage is believed to come from food eateries, hotels and catering businesses.1

While the state government has since introduced the Waste Segregation at Source Policy throughout the state to prolong the lifespan of the Pulau Burung landfill, Chan still saw the need to do his bit, and so he set up Green Hero to channel food surplus from various businesses to customers.

“Too Young”

When it comes to getting funding, being too young can be a disadvantage. The business industry favours people with years of business experience.

“Let’s say if a 23-year-old with three years of business experience and a 35-year-old with ten years of experience were to go head to head to get funding, who do you think funders would back?” he contends.

“In hindsight, these businesses simply did not want to back the wrong horse. Green Hero was not my first foray into the business world. When I started my first business on e-waste, I was burning more cash than I was earning. I didn’t know what budgeting was, or realise the importance of daily cash flow and teamwork. I was 20 then, and I had to close my first company a year after I started,” Chan says.

Determined to come back stronger, he attended courses and sought out mentors to improve his business knowledge. This led to the establishment of Green Hero. “I began to see some weaknesses. We used to rely a lot on cafes for their surplus, but they didn’t have much of that. It affected our daily cash flow,” he says.

Green Hero decided to partner with various eateries and started selling sushi, bread, cakes, pastries, bento boxes, and even groceries and halal dim sum.

Chan enjoys speaking to the public to raise awareness on food wastage.

It was not easy to gain trust from the eateries – he was turned down by most of them in the early days because he was still a student, and because the Green Hero concept was considered too niche.

Changing the mentality of customers was another separate issue altogether. “Many thought we were selling expired food when we were selling food surplus. Food surplus is leftover uneaten food which was never put onto anybody’s plate, and is food fit for human consumption. In other words, we are helping eateries combat food wastage by selling the edible food surplus before its expiry date.

“I patiently explained to businesses and members of the public about Green Hero. The 4,100 Green Hero members who supported our cause also helped to spread the word,” he says. Hong Leong Bank also inducted Green Hero into its Jumpstart CSR platform, and provided it with sustainable smart business technology.

Green Hero may only be two years old, but the company has helped more than 80 cafes and restaurants in Penang and KL solve the problem with their food surplus – amounting to 32,000kg.

Chan is about to roll out the Green Hero app to make it easier for customers to place their orders. Currently, orders are taken through WhatsApp, which has its limitations – orders might get mixed up and eateries can be late with their surplus updates. The new app ensures a hassle-free transaction and helps merchants manage their surplus in a timely manner.

“We also want to increase our members from 4,100 to 10,000 next year. Hopefully, we can prevent 1,000kg of food waste – from the current average of 600kg – every week in Penang and KL. We’re looking at expanding to Johor Bahru as well next year,” says Chan.

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