Komal Ahmad is using algorithms to fight world hunger and reduce food waste

Renee Morad

When Komal Ahmad was studying at Berkeley, a chance encounter with a homeless man who was begging for food completely changed her path. “There was something about him that made me stop and invite him to join me for lunch,” she said.

“The man was unbelievably hungry,” Ahmad added. He had just returned from his second tour in Iraq, was waiting for his military benefits to kick in and hadn’t eaten in three days. “It wasn’t fair that someone who had sacrificed so much had to face this battle,” she said. Ironically, just across the street, Berkeley’s dining hall was throwing away thousands of pounds of untouched, unopened, edible food, she explained.

After her lunch with the homeless man, Ahmad simply couldn’t stop considering how she can make a difference. As she looked further into hunger and food waste, she was baffled by the disparities. For example, one in six Americans is food insecure, which means they don’t know how or when they’ll receive their next meal. Yet in contrast, Americans waste three times more food than there are hungry mouths to feed. “Hunger is not a scarcity problem but a logistics problem,” Ahmad explained. “There isn’t a lack of food but rather, an ineffective redistribution of excess food.” 

 As a first step, Ahmad met with Berkeley’s dining hall manager to see if they can work on a solution, but was told that donating the school’s food would be a liability. Ahmad was not willing to accept that as an answer and dove into research. She learned about the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996, which was created to encourage food donation to nonprofit organizations by limiting liability. She presented this to the dining hall manager and quickly earned their cooperation to start a food recovery program in the local community.

 For some time, Ahmad was doing the majority of the work. She’d get a call that there was food to be donated from Berkeley, fill up her car with the meals and make a mad dash around town, calling nonprofits and delivering items where needed. “I’d load 500 gourmet sandwiches in my car and then call 30 nonprofits as I blasted the AC in my car to keep the food cold. I’d find that one-third of them wouldn’t answer, one-third said they didn’t need food and others would ask for, say, 10 sandwiches,” she explained. The model wasn’t sustainable, and Ahmad knew there had to be a better way.

In 2016, Ahmad started Copia, a for-profit tech company that leverages algorithms and predictive analytics to match businesses with nonprofits in need of food. It partners with companies like Lyft to send a driver to pick up and deliver the food, and later, a digital receipt is signed by the nonprofit and stored in the cloud, where the business can access it. The solution takes on food waste and hunger at scale. “Think of it as a Match.com for sandwiches, but far more sophisticated than that,” Ahmad said. 

 The business model works by having businesses pay an annual subscription fee that enables them to easily and seamlessly donate their food while benefitting from significant tax savings. The businesses also receive actionable insights to inform future food purchasing decisions. 

 Ahmad believes that participating in startup accelerator Y Combinator made a big impact on Copia’s success. During its time with the accelerator, Copia helped businesses receive over $14 million in tax savings while feeding nearly 2 million people in the process. When Super Bowl 50 took place, the company recovered 14 tons of food in one weekend to provide over 23,000 meals. 

 “We can feed roughly 3 million people a year with incredible food that would have been wasted,” Ahmad said. “Meanwhile, companies benefit from the tax savings while we recover more food and help to fight hunger. When we win, everyone wins,” she added.