Tackling food waste and the art of partnerships

A Tri-Sector Approach: How the pioneer cohort of Singapore Management University's Master of Tri-Sector Collaboration sparked joint efforts in tackling food waste.

One third of all food produced globally is wasted. Singapore imports over 90% of food and with limited landmass, has restricted space to dispose its share of food waste. Singapore’s position as a net food importer coupled with the country’s aspiration to be a sustainable zero waste nation presents an opportunity for significant improvements to be made and leveraged not only in its food waste management practices, but also in influencing food safety and security in the ASEAN region. Singapore has a significant opportunity to be recognised worldwide as a leading proponent for reducing food waste – tapping new methods for unravelling this complex and ongoing problem.

Drawn to the complexity of food waste, 23 students from the first cohort of Singapore Management University’s Master of Tri-Sector Collaboration explored partnership solutions to food waste. 

Launched in January 2014, this innovative programme provides working professionals with the skills necessary to build partnerships across the private, public and people sectors in order to jointly tackle society’s most complex issues. The diverse group of students, equally representing each of the three sectors, believed partnerships were the key to tackling the emerging food waste problem in Singapore.


The power to convene

Problems and solutions were already known among key stakeholders, with many already taking action. However, there was insufficient collaboration to sustainably and effectively implement solutions. Most stakeholders saw the issue only from their own vantage point, and fragmented efforts undertaken resulted in a lack of scale of the existing collaborations, with almost none harnessing the strength of a tri- sector approach. Given that the food waste problem is complex, with causes resulting from so many factors, ranging from policy to consumer habits, a new approach was needed to encourage stronger interaction and collaboration.

According to the National Environment Agency (NEA), Singapore’s food waste has risen 48% over the past 10 years. In 2014 alone, Singapore generated 788,600 tonnes of food waste – equivalent to the weight of more than 1,420 fully loaded double-decker buses, or two bowls of rice per person per day. In spite of the large volume, only 13% of food waste was recycled.

The students organised themselves into a tri-sector task force, first conducting research on social, economic, technological and policy information related to food waste. This was followed by extensive stakeholder interviews to gain qualitative insights into current issues causing the generation of food waste. In May 2015, they convened a co-creation workshop “Let’s reduce plate waste in Singapore,” inviting a broad range of stakeholders such as hoteliers, restauranteurs, food bank and soup kitchen managers, consumers and government officials to attend – each having expressed a desire to reduce food waste. Designed to be a cross- sectoral conversation, the workshop aimed to be a helpful starting point to bridge gaps and provide a safe space to explore the current food waste reality, focusing on “plate waste” – the food wasted during preparation and at the point of consumption. This priority was determined based on unanimous feedback from experts interviewed.


“It’s all about respect for food”

Singaporeans are renowned over the world for their passionate relationships with food and a culture centred around the enjoyment of food. In this spirit, the workshop participants were invited to a candid discussion on the symptoms and root causes of plate waste in Singapore. A strongly held view by most of the participants, regardless of their sector, was that people have “no respect for food”; treating it as an entitlement with little “appreciation of the journey a tomato travels...from the tender care of the farmer to their plates in Singapore”. Because most of Singapore’s food is imported, the population has limited opportunity to experience or understand the farming and production process, resulting in behaviours which demonstrate a lack of respect and illustrate an overall lack of awareness of the food supply chain.

Gaining consensus on the symptoms and root causes was a powerful way to get participants across the various sectors to agree on the core issues that lead to plate waste.
Working in a series of facilitated small group conversations, the discussions were animated and honest. One group facilitator observed, “I could see faces light up when they realised others so different from themselves agreed on the same problem, like a chef and a soup kitchen volunteer...their eyes opened wide to their shared experiences, and there was a clear eagerness and passion to pursue solutions.” So many of the different stakeholder groups had not had the opportunity to venture across boundaries and see the issues from another vantage point, nor considered working together.


Actions, not just words

Feedback from the participants reflected that a tri-sectoral approach to tackling this complex problem in Singapore is indeed the correct approach.

88% agreed that the workshop enabled them to think of alternative solutions which they had not considered before and 100% of the participants agreed that the workshop was useful in establishing new networks to reduce plate waste, and were interested to be part of future initiatives.

Singapore has yet to capitalise on its bounty of opportunity: well- articulated sustainable aspirations, nascent and enthusiastic civic groups, and the capability to bring multiple stakeholders together to catalyse for impactful change. This first dialogue was a step in the right direction.

As a result of this initiative, other concrete actions are in motion:

  • A non-profit association in Singapore has agreed to consider taking a partnership initiative forward from this workshop. The association will reach out to participants of this workshop with a proposal on making this “plate waste” reduction initiative in Singapore a reality
  • A prominent food photographer started a movement to motivate #noplatewaste in Singapore
  • A civil society organisation has agreed to reach out to various private sector representatives to assist them in their efforts to reduce food waste in their establishments
  • A prominent chef in a well-known hotel chain in Singapore has negotiated with his management team to reduce the price of baked goods towards the end of the day, which has been highly successful in reducing food waste in the hotel

This article was first published in the 2016 edition of Tri-Sector: a publication by the Singapore Management University School of Social Sciences. It is republished here with kind permission of Singapore Management University.

Original Authors: Anthony Caravello, Christy Davis
Contributors: Sueanne Mocktar, Song Hsi Ching, Georgie Passalaris