Pioneer Of Humanability: Komal Ahmad

Pioneer Of Humanability: Komal Ahmad

In an interview with PSFK in collaboration with Verizon, Komal Ahmad discusses how she is using technology for good in her work as founder and CEO of Copia, a mobile app that helps businesses put their excess food to use, helping curb environmental waste as well as giving food to those who need it most

  • 2 july 2018

In a special series brought to you with the help of our partner Verizon, The Pioneers of Humanability is directing the spotlight onto the people, organizations and companies who are using technology to do more new and do more good in the world.

Fresh food has an extremely limited shelf life. Every day countless amounts of perfectly usable food are dumped and wasted, while thousands go hungry. This paradox is what Komal Ahmad, founder of Copia and one of PSFK’s featured Pioneers of Humanability, is solving with an app that connects businesses with excess food to the people who need it. In this interview with PSFK, Komal explains why hunger is a logistics problem rather than a scarcity issue, highlighting how the right physical and digital infrastructure can be used to redistribute virtually any resource with benefits for everyone involved.

PSFK: In what ways do you think technology has the potential to impact humanity, making a positive social difference?

Komal: For the first time in human history, we have the technology to solve some of the world’s hairiest, intractable, previously unsolvable problems—problems like food waste and hunger. The same technology we use to order a burrito from our couch or swipe right on a dating app to find a significant other can be used to ensure life-saving resources are matched with people who need them. At Copia, our technology is connecting businesses with excess food to the people who need it, when they need it.

How does your work create a positive impact or strengthen local communities?

Access to food is a fundamental human right. A meal is a stepping stone to everything—without it, one cannot be productive or healthy. Food waste in the presence of hunger is one of the most disturbing, yet solvable, paradoxes of our time. Copia was created to make healthy food equitably accessible by connecting businesses with high-quality excess food to those who need it, when they need it.

Our goal is for every food business and business with food to partner with Copia to ensure that their high-quality food is used to feed people and not landfills. By reducing food waste, businesses save money and resources, minimize environmental impact and most importantly, move toward a reality where everyone in their community has enough to eat.

What inspired you to do more new and do more good?

One day I was walking down Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley and encountered a homeless man begging for food and something about him compelled me stop and invite him to join me for lunch. After sitting down with him, I learned that he had just come back from his second tour in Iraq and was waiting for his veteran benefits to kick in. He shared that he hadn’t eaten in three days. That hit home for me. How could someone who had selflessly sacrificed so much for our country come home only to face another battle, that of hunger?

Meanwhile, right across the street at the U.C. Berkeley dining hall, thousands of pounds of perfectly edible food were being thrown away. So, it was this very stark reality of those who have and waste, and those who are in need and starve – and these people existed literally right across the street from one another. I thought, there needs to be a solution for this where people who have food could say “we got food” and people in need could say “hey, we need food,” and we could match these two people and clear the marketplace. And that’s essentially what we’ve built at Copia — a way to solve both hunger and food waste across America, and eventually, the world

Your site reads “Hunger isn’t a scarcity problem. It’s a logistics problem.” Talk about how Copia is setting out to solve that. Do you see this same model being applicable to other global challenges, and if so how?

Every day in America, we waste enough perfectly edible food to fill an NFL football stadium to the brim. Meanwhile, one in six Americans is food insecure, meaning they don’t know how or when they will obtain their next meal. This nets out to a pretty stark reality: we waste three times more food than there are hungry mouths to feed. So it’s not a lack of food that’s the issue, rather, an ineffective distribution of that food. Hunger is not a scarcity problem; it’s a logistics problem.

Copia’s technology platform solves the complexities of redistributing perishable excess food. Our algorithm allows nonprofits to create a profile specifying what type and volume of food they can accept and on what days. We are then able to instantly connect a food donation to a nearby nonprofit and dispatch a driver to easily pick up and safely deliver the donation – all in less than 30 minutes.  

Right now, we’re out to perfect the redistribution of one of the most highly-perishable resources – food. In the future, we envision our technology being used to redistribute any excess resource from medicine, to books, to clothing, and school supplies. We’ve only just begun.

Can you share a few of the biggest success stories from the platform thus far?

Copia organized the first-ever zero food waste events at the Oscars and Super Bowl 50. At both of these events, Copia recovered high-quality, gourmet food that would have otherwise been thrown in the landfill and used it to serve the local community.

At the Oscars, we recovered food from the Vanity Fair party — one of the most glamorous post-Oscars events — where world-renowned chef Thomas Keller prepared incredible food for the likes of Matt Damon and George Clooney. The excess food from this event fed more than 1,100 people in the LA community, including 40 Syrian and Iranian refugees who had just come to America, and gave them the chance to “eat like a star.”

At the Super Bowl, we recovered more than 14 tons of food — enough to feed over 23,000 people. We aren’t talking typical stadium food, we’re talking $300 cheeses, lobster rolls and pulled pork sandwiches…not all my jam, but delicious food that would have otherwise been trashed.

The scalability of our technology was put to the test this past October when Copia was the first responder to the worst fires in California history. Before FEMA, Salvation Army, and American Red Cross could even mobilize – Copia was on the ground providing food for tens of thousands of fire evacuees as well as 500+ members of our national guard and our first responders. Through our partnership with SF Fights Fire we were able to provide more than 34,000 meals in the first 2 weeks of a natural disaster.  

Copia’s greatest achievement has been our collective impact with the hundreds of businesses and nonprofits who have partnered with us to reduce food waste and end hunger in their communities. Through our partnership with businesses across the country, Copia has fed more than one million people, and I’m proud to say that this year we will feed over 2 million people with incredible food that would have otherwise been wasted.  

What’s in store for the future of Copia—how do you plan to scale the platform? What are some of the current goals you’re working towards?

Our goal is for Copia to be in every city in America, and eventually, to grow globally. Right now, we’re identifying and working with national distribution partners to turn on operations quickly in new cities across the country.

Additionally, what responding to the California wildfires — a huge natural disaster — showed us is that the potential for Copia is beyond just redistributing food. Food, after all, is the most perishable and difficult thing to move — now that we’ve built the technology and developed the logistics infrastructure we can use the same sophisticated algorithms to redistribute medicine, medical supplies, books, clothing etc. because it is not a lack of any of these resources — it’s an ineffective distribution of these resources.

Inspired use of technology is putting wasted food to good use and serving the community, helping those in need while also reducing environmental effects. For more about how innovators like Komal are using technology to serve progressive goals and better the community for all, see The Pioneers of Humanability, brought to you by PSFK with Verizon.

Verizon’s Pioneers of Humanability list honors the people, organizations and companies that are using technological innovations to bring about good things for the world. These are the pioneers, keeping food safe and water clean, cutting pollution, saving energy and enabling doctors to treat patients in a county or a country away. They’ve stopped asking “What if?” or “Why isn’t?” and started doing and leading. These are the people, organizations and companies you need to know about now—because they’re building the future.

In a special series brought to you with the help of our partner Verizon, The Pioneers of Humanability is directing the spotlight onto the people, organizations and companies who are using technology to do more new and do more good in the world.

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