When Oscar Ekponimo was 11 he went to school hungry. That year, his father had a partial stroke, causing him to lose his job, and with it, the family income. “For the next three years we had little food in the house,” he recalls. “If we had one small meal at the end of the day, it was a good day. I recall one instance when all I ate in a 48-hour period was a biscuit snack a friend shared with me at school.” Ekponimo’s home is Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country. Despite being the continent’s largest economy, seven in 10 Nigerians survive on less than US$1.25 per day. For an estimated 13 million Nigerians, hunger is a daily reality. Accessible
social security is virtually non-existent, which means it is easy to slip into poverty.
“Those years of hunger were tough. The feeling of deprivation unbalanced me, deeply affected me emotionally. Fortunately the economy improved and my father was able to find work again, but I resolved to use what skills I had to find ways to prevent others experiencing the same hunger,” says Ekponimo.
A software engineer in the capital Abuja, Ekponimo devotes up to 30 hours
every week, on top of his day-time job, developing solutions to alleviate hunger. “I wanted to find an affordable source of nutrition for economically disadvantaged people. I could see there were a lot of organizations trying to solve the problem, but I also saw so much food being wasted. If food wastage can be addressed, automatically food availability will improve and the stress on natural resources will reduce.”
Ekponimo developed a cloud-based software application, Chowberry, that
reduces food waste and redistributes products to people in need. The application enables retailers to scan item barcodes on packaged food items three months before expiry date. As the end of shelf-life approaches, the software generates notifications, initiating discounts that increase as the products approach their final date. Low-income consumers and partnering food-relief agencies are notified where discounts are being offered.
“I saw an opportunity to provide affordable nutrition to millions of people while providing retailers with a sustainable system for managing the end of shelf-life. This is a win-win solution,” explains Ekponimo.
He has completed a successful three-month pilot with 300 users and 20 partner retailers within Lagos and Abuja, feeding about 150 orphans and vulnerable children. In June, Chowberry signed its first official retailer partner, Ekponimo’s first step in his ambition to reach 50,000–100,000 low-income households, and ultimately alleviate hunger for many Nigerians.
“A big challenge for us is reaching out to the very poor,” says Ekponimo. “An estimated 80 per cent of people have access to mobile phones, which helps. But to reach really poor people, we need partnerships with community organizations and food-relief agencies, such as Save the Children Fund, who already have access to them.”
To achieve his goals, Ekponimo realizes Chowberry needs to become a sustainable social enterprise. Rolex Award funds will go towards hiring engineers to upgrade the software, ensuring the application is more robust, and scaling up the organization by adding more retail partners.
“When I think of the millions of people who are food-deprived, counting on me to give them some relief, to help alleviate their suffering, I am driven to make Chowberry a success. I can never throw in the towel,” he says.
Published in 2016