Finance grads launch 'ugly food' firm in Singapore to minimise B2B waste

By Lester Wan contact

- Last updated on GMT

TreeDots mostly works with importers on the procurement of products and, to date, have about 180 businesses on board.
TreeDots mostly works with importers on the procurement of products and, to date, have about 180 businesses on board.
Three promising business and finance graduates in Singapore have started a B2B ecommerce business for the retail of blemished or imperfect-looking food products.

TreeDots states its mission is “to minimise the amount of food waste starting with Singapore, and eventually the world, through a self-sustaining ecosystem via our aggregation of F&B businesses on different points of the value chain within TreeDots, to ensure that there is no longer a need to dispose of perfectly edible food.”

The founders said that this is a fresh idea that has not been seen in any other place, at least in their research.

Among the three co-founders, Lau Jiacai, CEO, was an auditor at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), while Nicholas Lim, COO, and Tylor Jong, CFO, had internships in financial firms such as UBS and Oliver Wyman. All three have had different yet connected experiences and journeys that lead to this idea.

For Lau, it was during his exchange in Germany during his university days.

“When I was in Europe I had seen many green initiatives in the region, trying to reduce food waste. For instance, in supermarkets, they have huge corners for expiring products going at a hugely-discounted price,”​ he said.

“(When I came) Back to Singapore, I started becoming more conscious about such things and realised that such green initiatives were lacking here. Through a casual conversation with my co-founders, Nicholas and Tylor, we decided to work on this social problem.

“Through our research, we came to realise that most of the food waste actually occurs at the business level and hence we chose to target food waste at the importers and wholesalers level instead.”

While there are items for sale to consumers on the TreeDots website, Lau said this is more for “educational purposes”​, to help consumers understand the reality of ‘ugly food’ and that it usually isn’t ugly.

“Right now, B2C is not really in our pipeline because the products we get from the importers are not in consumer-friendly sizes most of the time, such as a 15kg chicken thigh. However, moving forward, with larger volumes and more manpower, we may consider B2C provided we have the facilities for repacking and storage,” he said.

The store and operations

TreeDots sells all its products online. As the business does not hold inventory, Lau said space is not an issue for them.

“We run our business in the most asset-light way as much as possible,” ​he said.

Upon the customer ordering through the website or Whatsapp or phone call, TreeDots will arrange for a pick-up from its suppliers and distribute them the next day.

“We are in the process of integrating technologies such as a chatbot on various messaging platforms to create a straight-through ordering process, where the entire purchase process is automated from the point of ordering,” ​he said.

The TreeDots site lists meat products such as chicken parts, fruits and vegetables, and some seafood. According to Lau, they are generally at least 20% cheaper than wholesale prices but can go as low as 80% off wholesale prices, depending on the specification of the products — whether they are expiring soon, “out of specifications”​, or an over-imported product.

Depending on the reason and the urgency of the supplier to clear these products, their prices vary accordingly, he explained.

“We work closely with mostly importers on the procurement of products and, to date, we have on-boarded about 180 businesses. Although, we are still doing our sales testing with a small group of approximately 35 buyers at the moment,” ​he said.

To address the cold chain challenge, they bought a freezer truck to ensure that product transportation is up to standard.

So far, the reception has been good.

“They expected it to be darkened or squashed products but in actual fact they look not much different from what you can get at the supermarket, if not the same or better,” ​said Lau.

He added that they have plans to expand their range to include more products, such as more seafood as well as beef, lamb and canned products.

Upcoming in the future

Currently, the trio are exploring other plans such as expansion to include other types of waste beyond food, as well as overseas expansion into other ASEAN countries.

“We are looking at countries such as Vietnam or Indonesia as we have potential working partners there that can help us quickly settle and get up to speed with the F&B industry in the region, allowing for a more successful expansion,”​ said Lau.

However, he acknowledged that would take some time as they are “still focusing on fine-tuning our processes first”​.

He added that they have “a couple of exciting plans in our pipeline”​ which will be revealed on their website and social media in the near future.

While the company was incorporated in August 2017, it was only operationally ready around February this year.

“We were fortunate to be incubated in the Singapore Management University (SMU) and (TreeDots) was granted the SG Founder grant, which helped tide us through the initial period,”​ said Lau.

“Other than that, we have not yet raised funds from investors and purely managed all the operations and development required by ourselves.”

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