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The accidental entrepreneur: How Yume founder Katy Barfield came to take on waste in the commercial food industry

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien /

Yume founder and chief Katy Barfield. Source: Supplied.

Yume founder and chief Katy Barfield. Source: Supplied.

She never saw herself as an entrepreneur, but having spotted a problem with global ramifications, Yume founder Katy Barfield has found herself heading up a startup intent on disrupting the commercial consumables industry.

Before founding Yume in 2014, Barfield was the founding chief executive of SecondBite, a platform bringing food that would have gone to waste to people in need of meals, however while working on the business, she tells StartupSmart she came to realise the “extraordinary size of the problem”.

There was a lot of surplus food that SecondBite wasn’t receiving, Barfield says, which left her wondering why people would prefer to throw food away than to donate it.

“Why wouldn’t you at least offer it?” she asks.

She also realised there was a challenge for farmers with surplus crops. Often donating that food is more expensive than simply burying it, she says.

“To ask them to donate products is not necessarily possible,” she says, given there are still costs involved in picking, packing and shipping produce.

“Logistics is one of the highest cost drivers,” Barfield explains. “We had to put more value back into the food system.”

And on the manufacturing side, a lot of companies don’t donate food because of “brand concern”, she says. Even if 1% of a consignment has a problem with it, the whole batch will be withheld from the market, to reduce the chance of customer complaints.

Barfield recognised that to tackle food waste at such a scale, mere food rescue was not going to be enough.

“It’s about commercialising the opportunity for Australian farmers and manufacturers by giving them the opportunity to put a product onto a platform,” Barfield says.

Even if they sell it for considerably less, it would “still incentivise them not to dump it,” she adds.

To this end, Yume is intended to address the issue of food waste on a larger scale. The startup provides a platform allowing food distributors to list surplus stock for reduced prices, meaning those looking to purchase large quantities of products — be they restaurants, market stalls or caterers — can get their hands on high-quality foods at reduced rates.

Last year, the startup raised $2.6 million in a funding round led by the Fairfax family, and “a lot of large companies have signed up to put product with us,” Barfield says. Equally, “a whole host” of farmers have signed up to use the service.

Clients purchasing the foods range from the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre and the Victorian government, to Qantas and local pubs.

And while Barfield realises people “want to be really cautious” when buying food, she says Yume is a “safe platform to interact with”.

In one case, a shipment of grade-A salmon fillets missed its 30-minute delivery window to a supermarket. By the time a new delivery could be arranged, the fillets had nine days before their use-by date, which was just under the 10 the retailer requires. The salmon was subsequently sold through Yume for $7 per kilo, reduced from $45.

“This is premium product,” Barfield says. For the supplier, any money is better than none, and “it’s better than throwing it out”.

To date, Yume has saved approximately $1.7 million in revenues that would have been lost to farmers and manufacturers, and diverted 390,000kg of food from landfill sites, but “there is so much more that could be done”, Barfield says.

An entrepreneur by accident

In her early life, Barfield admits she didn’t necessarily appreciate the impact that human food consumption was having on the planet.

It wasn’t something she ever really thought about, but now she has two children, aged six and nine, and realises “they’re inheriting a bit of a mess”.

“It’s going to be very hard to reverse the effects that we’ve had on the planet,” she says.

According to Barfield, she ended up as an entrepreneur “purely by accident”.

She isn’t sure if she’s always showed business acumen — rather, she believes her success lies in her conviction. Both with SecondBite and Yume, she saw a problem and set about solving it.

“I’m very passionate about these topics and I’m always amazed at people’s ability to turn the other cheek, to look away,” she says.

“I’ve always just been a bit rebellious in that way. I can’t sit there and accept behaviour that makes absolutely no sense.”

There’s strength in “getting people together who think in the same way”, she says, attributing a large part of Yume’s success so far down to her seven-strong team of “people with as much passion as me”.

Katy Barfield Yume

Winning the war

And that passion is required as Yume is tackling a huge and daunting problem. Some 2.2 million tonnes of food in the commercial sector goes to waste in Australia every year, and according to Barfield, Yume and other food rescue businesses are still only saving about 2% of that.

Barfield has now launched an Eliminate 98 campaign alongside Lily D’Ambrosio, Victorian Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change, and is calling on the commercial food industry to play their part in changing the narrative around food waste.

It’s also about giving people “an idea of the scale”, Barfield says, something that will only put more pressure on those who can make meaningful change.

“Unless we get large multinationals, farmers and buyers signing up to it, we will not win this war,” Barfield says.

“We need to put pressure on the big companies.”

The Eliminate 98 campaign comes partly as a response to one of Barfield’s greatest challenges — simply getting the message across to multinational suppliers.

A lot of distributors allow for 5% waste in their budgets, and so “they don’t really pay attention”, she says. But when you add up the millions of kilos of food being produced, “5% is a lot”.

There’s also bureaucracy within large companies, with various people having to sign off on deals, and sales teams with KPIs to meet.

As a startup, managing these relationships can be challenging, and costly.

“We’re not profitable — we’re constantly trying to fight goliath, but with no budget,” she says.

“We’ve just got a slingshot and Goliath’s got automatic machine guns pointing at you.”

“We’re trying to disrupt a whole market. It’s really hard.”

“Don’t listen to the doubters”

Ultimately, the biggest wins come “when people buy the food”, Barfield says. There are even times when people get the idea immediately, jumping on board in disbelief that something like this hasn’t been done sooner.

“Other days, you get bashed from every angle, just want to go home, have a glass of wine, read a book and turn off,” Barfield says. But either way, “you have to get up the next day”.

Barfield’s top piece of advice for founders trying to change the world is to “back yourself and don’t listen to the doubters”.

“A world full of people will tell you it’s not going to work. I’ve wasted too many nights and hours and energy pondering on what the disbelievers say,” she admits.

“But something has got to change if I want to leave a legacy for my children that is going to give them a chance to live in a sustainable world.”

Keeping high spirits can depend on who you surround yourself with, Barfield says, and that can include team members you believe in, and mentors “who will remind you you’re not mad”.

“Be careful who you surround yourself with,” Barfield warns, suggesting the best people will challenge you, but in a constructive way rather than a negative one.

“Don’t be afraid of criticism, but don’t let it get to you,” she says.

NOW READ: Nine startups making the world a better place

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Stephanie Palmer-Derrien

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien is a reporter at StartupSmart.

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