The Moxie Sessions: Thought for food: Can technology help feed the world?

Opinion

Vaughn Davis

Kai chief executive Amanda Judd

Innovations in food tech are so hot right now, and none quite so much as the hard-to-believe field of Slaughter Free Beef. It was inevitable, really: growing demand from affluent American consumers for ethically sourced food, coupled with an unwillingness to forego the meaty goodness of a Grade-A steak created a ready-made market. Add the growth in the prosthetic limb industry fuelled by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to DARPA-funded company Boston Dynamics prototyping entirely robotic animals, and the idea of eating a limb (or two, and possibly soon three) from an otherwise healthy and happy steer became reality. 

We like food at The Moxie Sessions, and we also like technology. It’s baffling, then, that’s it’s taken 43 monthly-ish meetings to turn our attention to the intersection of the two. So it was with a focus fuelled equally by a willingness to make up for lost time and three plastic platters of chain-store sushi that we asked ourselves just what happens when silicon chips meet actual ones.

Leading the discussion were Countdown’s James Walker, Sipreme cofounder Briard Janse van Rensburg and Amanda Judd from Kai.

While Countdown was by far the longest-established business in the room, it can also claim to be a digital pioneer, thanks to its 20-year track record of selling groceries online (first as Woolworths and now Countdown.co.nz). Two decades in, 80,000 New Zealanders a week choose to buy their groceries online (but that compares to three million visits to the company’s real-world supermarkets). 

Although the online market isn’t taking off as quickly as you might expect, James Walker says a few real-world trends are worth noting. “People are increasingly treating supermarkets as a pantry,” he says. “Overall, our average basket is around $40 but this drops to around $15 for inner city stores." The key drivers for in-store grocery shopping, he says, are convenience (not many of us would drive past supermarket A to get to supermarket B) and price (a staggering 50% of what we buy is “on special”). People shopping online tend to spend more but, if you are looking for fresh fruit and vegetables, there is no substitute for squeezing your own lemons.

If Countdown caters to our impulsive shopper behaviour, online food delivery service Kai is counting on a more planned approach. Kai’s mission is to accelerate the move toward healthy and locally sourced food, by delivering ingredients for recipes users select from a meal planning app, based on their diet preferences and what they already have in the pantry. Kai founder Amanda Judd contrasts this with the “everything in a box” approach from competitors such as My Food Bag … “so, if you don’t need soy sauce we won’t send you any... but, if you do, we’ll send a whole bottle rather than repackaging it.” Like Countdown, Kai reviews the entire supply chain from producer to consumption (and waste) but with a greater focus on sustainability than price. Even so, Amanda says, the cost per portion, delivered, can be as low as $4.25 – making the service an option for low-income families who might face the double-whammy of living some distance from a supermarket and not having easy access to transport.

Across the Moxie table from Amanda (and at first glance a million miles away in his approach to food), Sipreme cofounder Briard Janse van Rensburg reckons he can knock 25c off Amanda’s price … the only catch is that you’ll need to drink dinner through a straw. Sipreme is a New Zealand-developed complete food replacement in the form of a shelf-stable powder that users (it’s a bit hard to call them diners) add water to and blend before sucking back a balanced mixed of nutrients in their choice of chocolate or vanilla flavours. Unlike Countdown and Kai, Sipreme sees food as fuel, rather than pleasure (its website features a photo of a guy looking at a stalk of broccoli as if he’s about to hurl or cry). It’s an approach which has attracted investor attention (perhaps in part thanks to its food-as-a-service subscription model) and while it’s currently a New Zealand-only service, global expansion is definitely on the roadmap. 

While Countdown’s pantry replacement strategy, Kai’s focus on sustainability and Sipreme’s food-as-fuel approach might seem quite different on the surface, there is something that connects them (and a lot of other tech businesses, truth be told). They’re arguably aimed more at the affluent and time-poor few, rather than the resource-poor many that make up plenty of us both here in New Zealand and around the planet. (Although Amanda from Kai points out affordability and access are major focuses for the business.) 

New Zealand isn’t short of smart people looking to change the world. We’ve also got a long history of turning rain and sunshine into food. Combine those two resources – but with a view to helping the world feed itself, rather than feeding (or fuelling) an affluent niche – and we could be on to something both tasty and sustainable. 

PS, The Slaughter Free Beef thing is, at time of writing, imaginary. 

Every month, The Moxie Sessions brings together a small group of business thinkers to discuss ways New Zealand can take advantage of the Internet to boost its national competitiveness. For more, see http://themoxiesessions.co.nz.

Tune into NBR Radio’s Sunday Business with Andrew Patterson on Sunday morning, for analysis and feature-length interviews.


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