Innovation That Matters

Hjalmar Ståhlberg of Karma on Reducing Food Waste

Wise Words

The founder of the Karma on reselling food waste and how smart algorithms can help tackle overproduction.

Karma is a Swedish startup dedicated to tackling the issue of food waste. The company started with an app connecting consumers with businesses such as restaurants and grocery stores wanting to sell their unused food at a discount. In 2019, the company also developed a smart refrigerator that food retailers could store their surplus food in for users to pick up. 

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, around one-third of all food produced globally is wasted each year, including around 40 to 50 per cent of root crops, fruits and vegetables. This amounts to a total of 1.3 billion tonnes and almost €850 Billion in waste. This insightful Wise Word with Karma founder and CEO, Hjalmar Ståhlberg dives into how to create successful teams and how the startup plans to continue reducing food waste in the future. 

— Katrina Lane

1. Where did the idea for Karma come from?

Myself and my co-founders Elsa Bernadotte, Mattis Larsson and Ludvig Berling started Karma initially as a more generic deals app. After seeing the demand for food-related offers grow, we paused and asked ourselves why that was happening. Looking deeper into the issue of food waste, we learned that ⅓ of all food produced globally is wasted, and we wanted to do something about it.

Having built businesses prior to Karma, we knew that together, we could apply our knowledge and create something with real value and purpose.

2. What was your background prior to this, and how did that shape your work for Karma?

I’ve always loved programming and technology. I started programming, as a fun and challenging hobby, in my early teenage years. At the age of 16, I also began building websites for businesses.

The fact that you can create almost anything from the comfort of your home still fascinates me and has made me a true advocate for everyone learning to code in life.

Somewhere in my late teens, I picked up an interest in medicine and decided that I wanted to go to medical school. After graduating, I spent about a year practising medicine in the emergency department for substance abuse.

Wonderful as it is to get to work with patients and solve tricky cases, I found myself longing for building something of my own. At that moment, one of the projects that I had been building during my time at university started to gain traction and became a real business.

I made the decision to give it my all and here I am 6 years later, really thankful that I took that leap of faith.

3. What change does Karma want to facilitate?

The food industry overall accounts for 26 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions. It’s a problem on such a vast scale, and yet it doesn’t receive the same environmental concerns as other industries. For example, in reality, airlines only account for 2.5 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Our mission at Karma is to make the food industry more sustainable. To do that, sustainability has to become effortless. That’s why we talk about “Saving food with a tap”. We want people to understand that they can have an important positive impact, simply by rescuing food from their cafes and grocery stores.

4. Through your work, are you seeing a genuine paradigm shift in businesses towards positive change?

Since we began in 2016, there has been such a huge change in awareness both from the consumer side and also from our retail partners.

In the beginning, half the battle was convincing businesses that they were wasting food and making them aware of the impact that had – both on a micro-level (for them financially) and also at a much larger environmental level.

Whilst that conversation has become a lot easier over the years, food waste is still not a top priority for many businesses. However, with the challenges surrounding covid shifting focus towards the financial aspect, maybe the industry will consider food waste more deeply.

5. What is something that has been key to Karma’s success? 

From the beginning, we made sure to communicate a clear vision for our company. We have also been honest about the fact that most success comes from hard work. 

If everyone in the company is clear on the company’s vision and goals, solving problems or creating innovative solutions can come from anywhere — because they all ladder up to the same objective. It also allows us to move quickly and make decisions fast because we know where we are heading and what we need to do to get there. 

6. Where do you see Karma in five years, and how will you get there?

Whilst there is a big value in reselling food waste, there is a ten-fold larger value if we can stop food from becoming waste in the first place. Over the coming years, we want to focus on using the data we generate to tackle the cause of food waste – which is overproduction. And we plan to apply our smart algorithms to do that.

7. What is something you’ve read or listened to recently that you might recommend?

I’m a sucker for deep-diving into topics I know very little of, and the podcast Invisibilia by NPR is a really amazing source for that. Two books that I recently read and enjoyed were A Year in Space by astronaut Scott Kelly and The Everything Store by Brad Stone.

8.  Who inspires you? 

I’m going for the cliché of Elon Musk and his many companies that are all tackling very interesting problems. Of course, it’s not all him, but being able to gather such talented people is a rare and important skill. Also my amazing siblings and my mother!

9. Do you have any other thoughts or wise words for aspiring entrepreneurs?

What kind of team do you want to have around you (usually the best and brightest) and how do you get them to work with you? It’s important to have an idea upfront for this because you’re only as good as the people in your team – and they are at their best when they are highly motivated and inspired.