In this episode, I speak with Abigail Smith, who a year and a half ago established Thai Harvest SOS. An amazing organization that has, in just a short time created a process that is able to safely redistribute more than a ton of food a day to more than 20 communities in Bangkok.
For Abigail, she sees this time as a pilot for building the process, systems, and support needed to take this to tthe next level, and in my conversation with her we discussed a wide range of different systems that she is focused on, trying to nail down, or is struggling to bring to scale.
There is a lot of valuable content in here, even for the most experienced leader, and I hope you will enjoy watching this conversation as much as I (we) did filming it!
This interview is about identifying a problem, and building systems that address that problem and bring a measurable impact.
About the Entrepreneurs For Good Series
Through this series, we speak with Asia based entrepreneurs whose mission it is to bring solutions to the environmental, social, and economic challenges that are faced within the region to learn more about their vision, the opportunities they see, and challenges that they have had to overcome.
It is a series that we hope will not only engage and inspire you, but catalyze you and your organizations into action. To identify a challenge that is tangible, and build a business model (profit or non) that brings a solution to the market.
Thai Harvest SOS is a charity dedicated to the reduction of food waste and the redistribution of food fit for for consumption but not sale to those that need it.
Thai Harvest SOS collects non sellabe but consumable food free of charge and sends it to communities where it can be of use. Food not fit for consumption is sent to local farms for composting.
Abigail Smith, originally from the U.S., is the group’s operations director for Thailand and is responsible for driving its mission to “reduce food waste and use it in the most meaningful way.”
Driven by the belief that change begins with a single step, Richard Brubaker has spent the last 15 years in Asia working to engage, inspire, and equip those around him to take their first step. Acting as a catalyst to driving sustainability, Brubaker works with government, corporate, academic and non-profit stakeholders to bring together knowledge, teams, and tools that develop and execute their business case for sustainability.
Full Interview Transcript
RICH: Good afternoon everybody I’m here with Abigail from Thailand Harvest SOS. We just had the most amazing interview and I think you’re going to love this one. We covered everything from having a laid to like process to focus on your organization. The myth of the administration costs and just going from getting through one day, to one week to one month to changing the world. We hope that you enjoy this episode. I know I sure as hell did and if you do, please like, share and comment on her Facebook page. On every Facebook page. Thank you Abigail, this has been hysterical.
RICH: Tell me about your operating plan. How many trucks do you have and how much food do you process?
ABIGAIL: Twenty one food donors right now all over Bangkok. We’re processing anywhere from, it’s averaging out to about 900 kilos a day. Cuz we do get some bulk in every once and a while and 900 kilos a day and about 22 recipient communicates throughout the city of Bangkok.
RICH: And do you move it, do you like you get it that afternoon and it has to be out your door by the evening?
ABIGAIL: Pretty much. Anything that my trucks, So I’ve two vehicles. I have one compost vehicle and one edible vehicle. They start at 7:00am and then they are parked back on premise by 7:00p. If any of the food…the compost is all managed within a day. If any of the edible comes in after 2 or 3:00pm, that’s what our storage coolers downstairs is for and that goes out the next cuz we’ve got get it to the community in time to prep dinner. Otherwise it’s going to go to waste for them. Also we’re working though a lot of agencies that don’t have the fridge storage.
We’ve done food safety training but we would rather manage it for as long as possible. A, to save them on the storage costs and B, to ensure that it’s of the highest quality that we can give it to them and it’s served at the highest quality that we can predict to the best of our ability.
RICH: So how do you look at your system? Like, what are the flaming hot risks that you try to manage every day?
ABIGAIL: The flaming hot risk of course your first one is food safety. So we don’t take cooked rice. We don’t take anything cooked with coconut milk. It has a high volatile right after it gets heated. It kind of like goes on this crazy spectrum of bacteria within almost 45 minuets.
RICH: So, don’t eat cold curry on the street.
ABIGAIL: Really don’t. But it’s just one of those things that we know that’s a hot point especially here in southeast Asia that’s a lot of foods made with it. We do not take cooked seafood, at all. We do not take frozen shellfish, at all.
ABIGAIL: Because it’s just, those are your biggest risk factor categories for sure. The next is I guess cultural sensitivity with the food a lot of Hala communities. A lot communities that wouldn’t eat the food that we were given. So we spend a lot of time trying to match out. You bring a Thai family a box of bad Ghats, they don’t know what to of with it so it’s ending up in the landfill anyways. You bring Vietnamese refugee a box of baguettes, they thrilled. Same with we cater a lot of…yea, we cater a lot of post large Indian weddings. This is a huge Indian wedding hub. Pakistani refugees, Nepalese, Sri Lankan, all love it. But my Vietnamese are like whoa, why what is this? I don’t want it. So that’s how we deal with a lot of that.
Then the other hotspots are of course just being sensitive with the people that are receiving food. We want to treat them with dignity right?
RICH: Did you start with one community and move out? Did you always do everything like it, how it started?
ABIGAIL: It started pretty much one community, one donor, two donors, two communities and now it’s blossomed and it works. Now what we need are more vehicles. That’s really our next step. So in our first, we’re about a year and half old. Locally founded in March 2016. I’ve kind of looked at everything we’ve done still even almost up to this January as a pilot, as proof. Now, what we’ve been able to do is, we’ve been able to physically prove is that the food waste is there and that you know when I walk into a hotel and an executive chef says I have no food waste, that you do. You do and it doesn’t matter if it’s 10 kilos or 100 kilos, it’s still food waste and the more on people I get on board, the more 10 kilos matters and so forth and so forth.
So I’ve proved the food is there and the waste is there and that it’s not a hard process. Actually we’ve found that like some of the stewarding teams in hotels we’re making their jobs easier because they have less, wet heavy garbage. Ya know.
RICH: Right, so they save money from that.
ABIGAIL: Tesco Lotus is built into their KPIs for the store managers to donating. Things like that. We’ve proven the food is there. We’ve proved that the process is not impossible and we’ve proved the need and the hunger is there and maybe there aren’t staving people, but they will take the cost off that. They will take being remembered. It’s kind of fun and that they enjoy the difference in their diet and the variety that we are able to bring. Halfway home I got 100 kilos of frozen salmon from a restaurant that was changing menu. We brought it out. We mad fish balls. They’ve never had salmon before. So it was like this really special moment for them. Ya know, so it’s ya we’re providing meals and nutrition, but we’re also ya know just….
RICH: Like a nice night out in a way.
ABIGAIL: Yeah, it’s like they see our truck coming and their like, “oh my god, maybe it’s going to be a really cool desert today.” Or something different than they have every day.
RICH: Legally, how difficult was this? Were there laws in place? How open is the Thai society, Bangkok, a foreigner coming in and setting this up?
ABIGAIL: We do it before. We have a mixed Thai foreign board. We are locally registered. We are a Thai foundation. That process to get a local registration start to finish was bout 9 months and as we say, Phaeng mak, very expensive but well worth it. So Phaeng mak, mak. I’m the only westerner on staff. Even like my one American staff, she’s half Thai, she grew up in a Thai household and she’s fluent. I’m the only westerner on staff. I try to stay off the camera as much as possible and like when we do local news articles that it’s featuring the Thai staff. In Thailand, as much as like I don’t, there’s also a respect with the foreign foundation.
Now for me, I’d also been here for four years. I’d also worked in hotels for four years and could speak a little bit of Thai was kind of able to win over respect and that a lot of our corporates that were going through most 5 star hotel executive chefs are European here. Right? So I set it up and then my Thai staff comes in with their Thai staff and knocks it down. Then working with the mixed refugees who are used to working with UN, with asylum access, which has a…. So they were pretty used to it already. Some of our biggest blockades have been, I don’t want to say Thai, I want to say Southeast Asian here perception of what food waste is. Changing language over to surplus that it’s not dirty.
I feel like culturally all over the world, we have this big problem where…Oh my god if we donate food you’re going to sue us…everybody’s going to get food poisoning. It’s an Urban Legend essentially it really doesn’t happen. One of my partner foundations has been operating in this fear for 14 years over 1 billion meals served and not a single claim. They’ve also been able to change the laws in Australia to get food donors under Good Samaritan. It’s something that we’re looking at doing here.
Right now, I offer contracts to each food donor that guarantees that we accept liability if there is an issue and we can do that cuz honestly, there isn’t going to be an issue. I really firmly believe that.
RICH: You don’t worry about it.
ABIGAIL: We do have global insurance, but I really firmly believe that we’re not going to have an issue.
RIGH: Even though it’s potentially the hottest thing, it’s something that you don’t worry about.
ABIGAIL: I mean I worry about it, but we practice ____ some standards. I’m _____ (9:15) certified. I have a full time food hygienist on staff. We don’t take the right things. We train the people donating food. We trust our process.
RICH: So you trust your process.
ABIGAIL: We trust our process. We train our communities receiving food as well. It’s not….there is nothing half-assed about this. It was really thought through. It’s been really well thought through in other programs in the world. You trust your process and honestly, you can get food poisoning order at the table at a 5 star hotel just as easily as you can get it in street food, just as easy as any where in the world. So we trust our process just as much as you do sitting down at a restaurant and ordering a meal.
RICH: How do volunteers support your organization? Who makes the best…like, do you use volunteer on a regular basis? How are they part of your….
ABIGAIL: We done on couple..first off we take interns. Usually the interns are admin, are Facebook, social media, like doing cute little projects that we want to do that are itching in the back of our head, but like nobody had time to do a sliding scale, so our staff can see how close we are getting to our food capture goal. They bring a lot o f light and energy to the office to normally and so it’s great to have some. So internships have functions really, really well for us. We’ve taken volunteers on web design and on different projects like that which functions pretty well and is fun.
We are having problems. I don’t even know how to say it. We’re absolutely having problems. We are having problems having people cancel last minute. We’re having problems of people taking photos of the wrong thing and posting it on social media. Then we need to..
RICH: What’s the background of your average volunteer? Are they Thai? Are they foreign?
ABIGAIL: College students born here, but maybe a foreign background is a huge section of the population. Thai people returning home is a huge section of the population. Then all of our refugees want to volunteer, which is amazing. So we kind of use refugees volunteers on site to help sort, pack and distribute. That works well. But they can’t go out on the truck all day really.
We’ve also found some great success volunteer from spousal expats. So they’re on a spousal visa, so they can’t work, but they can only give so much time to it legally. It’s complicated I guess finding good volunteer help is not easy.
RICH: What are some of the challenges that you face, like how you…because managing volunteers is a process. It really is. It’s no different than budgeting. You ask for five people, you’re going to get three. How do you, what’s the process you try to create?
ABIGAIL: We’ve tried to create by month volunteer trainings, which happen right in this living room. Ten to fifteen kids come in, we pull out a wipe board, we sign them up for days. We go through food safety food standards, safe lifting, community sensitivity, all of that kinds of stuff. They sign up on the wipe board, we follow-up with email. Um, I learning that, that might not be a great process, so it’s not enough and honestly, I would love something like what you do to help us managing volunteers. It’s really… It’s really hard man.
ABIGAIL: I thought it was supposed to make my life better, but it makes it worse almost every single time.
RICH: That’s the irony of volunteering.
RICH: So, how good are you with your cash flow? Like how in touch with you are and I found this out like two years ago I nearly spiked my non-profit. I had about a four month window and I mean we were headed straight for the earth. I realized there’s a big difference between sales and cash flow. Like it’s huge. So, how do you know that?
ABIGAIL: I do all the forecasting. I am on it. I am picky about receipts. I am watching it all the time. Know when I say that we have x-amount for this program, for this month. There is usually a buffer in there. I build buffers all over the place. I always when I look at fundraising, I forecast on the fact that what this person that’s gonna to do this campaign for me, he’s going to raise me a million Baht, I put in my forecast, 25,000 Baht. You know what I mean? I don’t put anything in my forecast until I have ink on the paper. There’s no pipe dreams in it.
RICH: I have three sheets. One that is current and this is what I booked and I have exact numbers for. There is realistic what I’m pretty confident I can sell through. The other is potential. This is not just the revenue side, but it’s also how many people can I add. Like when they want a raise, I have to bake the raise in. That way I can figure out how many months do I have at present. I sort of hyperventilating under 6. I started loosing hair at 3. Sort of my doctorate at…
ABIGAIL: Yeah. When I do my end of 3rd quarter books, I mean I just…I just like to be hiding under my table with a bottle of wine going I have to fire everybody.
RICH: At least you don’t end that sentence with again. Right?
ABIGAIL: Again, no. It never…and that’s what buffers are about right? There’s guarantee, their bonuses aren’t guaranteed. Now are they all siting on my forecast like they’re all going to happen at 100% at all times, yes. Then that gives me another, that gives me a whole another month lets say something goes horribly wrong, that gives me another month. There’s things in there, there’s stuff in there like we know that our refrigeration is often unkind. Or we’re working on getting trucks in Kind now. But I still build my budget and forecast like I’m paying full price for that. That’s a lot of ways that I manage it. By telling my staff that we have less money than we do.
RICH: This give us the idea of scale. I think we’ll close it out here. Everyone’s like you got scale, you gotta do more. Bigger impact. More people. More trucks. More this, more that. How do you, how do you approach scale?
ABIGAIL: How do I approach scale? I mean…
RICH: Because this is a pilot right?
ABIGAIL: We’re still in pilot and I’m like looking at the real thing like I’ve proven it. Now we know stuff like for every US dollar we spend I can provide 4 meals. That’s the fuel I need for fundraising. Now I know that I’ve done operated for almost over a year and we haven’t had any food poisoning cases. Now I can say that. Right? I can really say that so now I can sell it stronger and better. Chicken/egg is a huge problem in what I’m doing here. Do I have the truck waiting in the wings and the staff sitting there with nothing to pick up while I’m out pitching to hotels? Or do I get the hotels on board and tell them I can work wonders and then when they call me and say can you start on Tuesday and it’s Monday and say, hey who can go buy a truck today and hire a staff. So we’re kind of balancing on that right now. I’m at the point where I’m at capacity and I’m still selling and the program to more food donors.
What I’m saying is that I’m going to get another truck, which we are. In the beginning of 2018 and then we would like to start your program on this day or this day. I also don’t pick up new communities and new food donors at the same time. For example, Hilton started on the first. Chatruim will start on the 15th. We’ve got a new recipient community starting on the 25th once I know that that’s all there and ok.
Because so that’s kind of the stuff that I’m doing. Just praying, there’s a lot of praying. I say to the kids, I call my staff the kids, everyday I kind of walk in and put my purse down and I’m like alright, what are we doing to get to the end of the day. If we can get to the end of the day, we can get to the end of the week. If we can get to the end of the week, we can get to the end of the month. Then eventually we are going to get to the end of the year and if we just keep doing the right thing every day…and if we just keep communicating and if we just keep pushing ourselves, our other team members, our donors, our recipient communities appropriately and just a little bit, we’re going to make progress.
If you’re doing the right thing, the money is going to come. The stuff is gonna come. I know it feels like ______________(17:35) I talking to you just like my staff talk, like I know today felt really hard, but we did it. It wasn’t impossible, it wasn’t maybe graceful, but we got to the end of the day, so now when this problem comes up gain, we’re going to be able to get to the end of the day with a little more grace. Then we’re gonna be able to prove our numbers and then we’re going to get more.
For more interviews from the “Entrepreneurs for Good” series, check out the playlist here.
Stay tuned for more clips and full interviews in the coming weeks.