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Surviving recession: My dream is to reduce food waste. So I won’t let my start-up die

Rayner Loi’s food-waste-tracking start-up had zero revenue at one point last year. What his investors had was faith. The 27-year-old is one of 12 Singaporeans who shared with CNA Insider how they’ve weathered COVID-19’s economic fallout.

Surviving recession: My dream is to reduce food waste. So I won’t let my start-up die

Rayner Loi's start-up has developed smart waste bins to reduce food waste.

SINGAPORE: Imagine you have an uncle who gave you a six-figure sum to study overseas.

You squandered the money and haven’t graduated — but it’s now Chinese New Year, and you’re going to see him. How are you going to face him?

That’s the feeling I’ve been getting in my monthly meetings with investors since the pandemic began. I don’t have good news to share with them.

EXPLORE THE INTERACTIVE SPECIAL: Surviving recession: How 12 Singaporeans Weathered COVID-19's Economic Fallout

But they’ve constantly reminded me that it’s not my fault, and I’m very thankful to them. They affirm that I’m doing everything to make the best of the situation for Lumitics, the food-waste-tracking start-up I co-founded in 2017 while in university.

One investor said he hasn’t lost faith in my team or the company. That meant so much.

His smart food-waste tracker uses AI to measure and identify food waste that goes into dustbins.

Before the pandemic, we had 20 to 30 smart waste bins contracted with clients such as hotels. Buffets are the lowest-hanging fruit in reducing food waste, so when we speak to any hotel, we typically focus efforts on that first.

With COVID-19, buffet lines have stopped. We had zero revenue around July.

LISTEN: Surviving a recession — 3 stories of grit

But by October, we recovered about 15 to 20 per cent of our business as hotels began to see more local demand. They figured out their hygiene measures and how to operate and welcome guests safely. They can now turn to look at solutions that reduce their costs.

We’ve had initial discussions with cruise companies, and are looking at production kitchens and restaurants.

As for airlines, we did a successful pilot project with one last year on how to optimise in-flight food waste.

Rayner Loi's start-up has developed smart waste bins to reduce food waste.

It expanded into beverages — how many cans of Coke or bottles of wine the plane should be carrying, because extra weight is a fuel cost for the airline. In the business recovery phase, hotels and airlines can’t afford to be wasteful.

In recent months, I’ve sensed more openness from clients and prospective clients. From zero conversations a week to having a couple, I take that as a win.

It’s a roller-coaster ride. When the Singapore-Hong Kong travel bubble was initially announced, we were exploring trials with some companies in Hong Kong.

When the bubble was suspended in December, it was a big blow to us; the cost of quarantine before meeting a client isn’t worth it.

He still has hopes of regional expansion.

I live with my parents, I’m not married, and I don’t have a house or car loan to pay off. A lot of the anxiety is really about my team of six.

One of them is Malaysian, so he has rent to pay, and his family depends on him to support the education of his siblings, who are considerably younger.

My team have joined in this dream of mine, and if it goes to the ground, I’d have let them down.

My co-founder Adriel Tan reminds me, though, that I shouldn’t be carrying this burden alone.

Obviously I’m not going to lie to them and say all is fine. But I need to be the strongest pillar in the company and give them hope.

His start-up received its first round of funding in 2017. It also secured further funding last year.

We announced a 20 per cent pay cut in October, and my guys were with me on everyone taking a hit rather than having to let people go. One has since left for another job, and I could understand his reasons.

Government agency Enterprise Singapore launched the Enterprise Development Grant for small and medium food service companies to leverage solutions such as Lumitics’ to manage their food waste, and claim for the expenses from the Government.

Because of that, we’re starting to see a bit more traction.

READ: Surviving recession: I was laid off twice within months. Now I help others like me find jobs

READ: Surviving recession: I didn’t plan to start a firm after uni. COVID-19 made me do it

My pitch to companies is, there are two possible outcomes of tracking their waste: They get data to back up the fact that their kitchens are running efficiently; or, they learn that they’re quite wasteful and there’s room for optimisation. Either way, it’s a win.

But to benefit from this grant, we must be able to close the deal with clients. Also, I might start a sales process in January, but get paid only in May.

My belief in the potential of this company and the need to reduce food waste hasn’t wavered. But it’s about staying alive right now so that we can ride the recovery.

READ: Surviving recession: I lost my shop after 16 years. But my fashion business isn’t dead yet

On the other hand, I’m grateful to have this privilege of managing a business during such a crazy time. How many 27-year-olds get to navigate such challenges?

Every day is an opportunity for me to learn and grow.

Read about the dancer who’s still finding his way back after his career and mental health suffered.

Source: CNA/dp

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