Komal Ahmad – Bridging the Food Divide
This year’s Newton Lecture Series kicked off with a UC Berkeley alum entrepreneur who’s determined to solve the world’s most basic problem – hunger. Komal Ahmad, Founder and CEO of Copia PBC, studied International Health and Global Development at UC Berkeley and has been named one of the Humanitarians of the Year in 2015, as well as been featured in UCB’s 30 under 30.
As Komal explained, food shortage is not a production problem, it is an access issue. For Komal, hunger was always the ‘world’s dumbest problem,’ and one that she never intended to solve, but was inspired to. On her path to fulfilling ‘the brown girl’s dream of becoming a doctor,’ a life-changing lunch with a homeless veteran who hadn’t eaten in 3 days changed her life. The stark contrast she noticed between the campus dining halls where food was more than needed, vs. the streets where a homeless veteran had to wait for benefits to kick in before affording food, made Komal realize that poverty was an issue not just in the world’s poorest locations but also in the world’s wealthiest. With 1 in 6 US people struggling with hunger, but 365 million pounds of food being wasted every day, fixing the disparity between supply and demand became Komal’s new life goal.
As she talked about the difference in her career expectations and its actual trajectory (falling in love with an idea vs. with a person), Komal identified pivotal moments that helped her become a pragmatic entrepreneur – a study abroad program in Tanzania, where 2/3rd of the patients she worked with tested positive for HIV, not only did the severity of disease startle Komal, but the realization kicked in that medicine has its limitations. She realized that unlike in the field of medicine, her opportunities as an entrepreneur would be endless. When she realized that 50 million Americans go without food every day, she started the first food saving endeavor around her – her first effort wasn’t efficient, but the frustration and the realization that people need better access to food inspired her. This was what gave birth to Copia – “With Copia, businesses can easily schedule pickups of their excess good and have it delivered to communities in need. Consider us the ‘Uber for Food Recovery.’” The business, which matches needs and affordances with what exists will feed 1 million people this year. Copia’s Technology is “designed to solve food waste and hunger at scale as easily safely, and quickly as possible.”
When asked why Komal chooses to label Copia a tech business rather than a social entrepreneurship venture, Komal responded, “this is based in tech; this is a business that is trying to improve its margins everyday as well.” She wants a scalable and profitable model since asking for money every day as a nonprofit becomes increasingly tedious and stagnant. Copia was initially funded by Y-Combinator, a program whose resources really appeal to Komal.
Komal uses the possible taxes on food wastage in the future as an opportunity cost based revenue model. Copia’s point-to-point distribution helps keep the costs low. With countries like France and Italy banning food waste, there are fines for companies that don’t partner with non-profits, and Komal hopes that this can happen in the US; it is starting on a small scale with some cities like Seattle. The cash rewards and tax breaks companies get incentivize them to focus on reducing wastage.
This past year, during the Super Bowl, Copia was able to feed 23,000 people in two days. A determined and hard-working entrepreneur, Komal’s exit plan of ‘leaving only when world hunger has ended’ left our Newton Lecture Series audience in awe.