Moez Al Shohdi | CEO of the Cairo-based Egyptian Food Bank Image Credit: Courtesy: Moez Al Shohdi

Dubai: Though the special charity organisation offering food to the needy in Egypt is less than 10 years old, it has grown and crossed borders to other Arab countries as a successful model to follow.

The whole idea of the Egyptian Food Bank, which emerged during a meeting of a group of Egyptian businessmen in Cairo several years ago, was a pilot project targeting Egypt. None of the participants in the 2004 meeting thought it would grow so rapidly and spread to almost all Arab countries as a role model to follow.

“The business mentality was the reason behind the success of the Food Bank,” said Moez Al Shohdi, Chief Executive Officer of the Cairo-based Egyptian Food Bank.

He goes back to that first meeting and says, “In that gathering we talked about needy people. We agreed that we want to do something. We want to make a difference. So we decided to establish an organisation. ”

But in Egypt, Al Shohdi told Gulf News in a recent interview, “there are already 40,000 organisations and there is no need to make this 40,001.  We decided we want to be different [from others], so we need to specialise. We agreed that we want to provide food [to the needy], which is one of the basic rights of humans.”

Another important thing they agreed on was their commitment to run their new project in a professional manner, “the same way we run our own businesses”, Al Shohdi said, adding that the participants accordingly “did their homework.  Our aim was to eliminate hunger [in Egypt] by 2025”.

But at the same time, the 15 Egyptian businessmen behind the project realised there was an “abundance of charity work” which was “somehow random”, and there was a need to organise these “haphazard efforts”.

“Across the Arab region, we lose and waste a huge amount of food. So we said we should spread awareness about not wasting food and making use of the excess [amounts],” he said.

  “In order to eliminate hunger, we should work simultaneously at providing food and providing training for those who are jobless but can work and earn their daily bread and butter.”

The founders, before launching their project, decided on the definition of who deserves assistance.

“It is those who are  in need but unable to work or earn an income [such as elderly people and little children]….I want to reach those everywhere because I am greedy, and in this type of work [charity], a person should be greedy. We also laid down  the criteria that would guarantee that these organisations (NGOs) can do this kind of work,” Al Shohdi said in reference to non-governmental organisations involved in distributing food among the needy.

After a thorough search and training sessions in fund-raising, social marketing and strategic planning, nearly 4,000 NGOs became partners in the project across Egypt.

In order to guarantee continuity, it was decided to establish the Food Bank on the basis of “waqf” or endowment. In Islam, waqf is a charity project that is either self-sustained or supported by those  who aim to benefit the members of the community. It can’t be sold, bought, inherited or mortgaged.   

“Investment is the guarantee of sustainability,” was the slogan adopted for the Food Bank.

Al Shohdi, who runs a regional company for hotels, started the project with his speciality, seeking to “use all available resources”.

“I came up with a simplified policy for how people can handle the excess food quantities they have after conferences.  I visited the tourist areas, and met hotel managers I know...  I explained my project to them.  I offered to provide them with boxes to fill with food to distribute to those who deserve it in a dignified and respectful manner. I also offered to pay allowances to those who work overtime to pack the food and distribute it.”

Major obstacle

The next question was where these should be distributed.

The nearest orphanages and places for elderly people and haphazardly-built areas, was the answer. However, a major obstacle appeared a few months after launching.

“We were subjected to a media campaign allegedly accusing us of distributing the left-overs of the rich to the poor.” 

 A division in the board of directors occurred, with the majority supporting stopping the project. But Al Shohdi was against this.

“I told them if anybody is willing to be responsible for throwing away all the excess food in the garbage they should speak now… of course nobody raised their hand.”

He insisted that the distributed food was not touched, but rather excess quantities of food already prepared. The programme continued, and started to develop further. 

Parties and conferences at hotels are not held every day, and excess food is not always available. Yet there are people who depend on receiving the food aid on a regular basis.

“For these, food packages that will be sufficient for a month are distributed,” he said, explaining that the package doesn’t include cooked food, but rather durable food staples such as rice, oil and legumes.

When the programme started, the figure of one million meals every month seemed to be a high number, and Al Shohdi and the other founders didn’t expect to touch the figure of 5.4 million meals a month a few years later.

But the programme grew over time, thanks to the businessmen’s efforts. More advertisement campaigns and more business entities were invited to participate, including the association of hotels in Egypt, and some banks. The result was even more encouraging. The number of distributed meals hit 17.2 million a month, with an average of 550,000 meals a day.

It was then that Al Shohdi believed the vision of eliminating hunger should be advanced from 2025 to 2020, he said.

With time, the programme expanded to include other elements to support its sustainability.

A factory for aluminium boxes was opened to produce the boxes to serve the food to the needy. Another factory was opened to can food, mainly meat. There are certain seasons, such as Eid Al Adha when meat is available in large quantities. Sheep and cow farms were set up to invest their income.

Vocational training to help people support themselves was also launched as secondary projects of the Food Bank.

  Minimal jobs for people with limited education were also offered at many hotels, which “previously suffered from the high turnover of employees” in positions such as plumbers.

Currently, there are 270 employees on the payroll of the Food Bank in Egypt.

“We as a group of businessmen agreed to cover all the administrative costs and salaries from our own business for one reason.  

“Any charity organisation is subjected to check-up from different parties, and I offer market salaries to my employees because I want professionals to achieve my goals. If I offer high salaries and they are from donations, I might get notices of violations…. But when I pay from my own pocket, nobody can question our decision.”

The food aid increases on certain occasions. For example, during the month of Ramadan, as well as at Eid Al Fitr and Eid Al Adha,  and Christmas, the portions increase.

And other elements are taken into considerations, such as adding toys for the packages sent to families with children, or school exercise books and pens at the time when schools reopen.

Al Shohdi said he was invited to the Private Sector Forum held in New York in 2010, after which an article was added to the committee report on the Food Bank in Egypt calling for “transfer of the concept [of the project] to other countries, and this will be one of the means to achieve the goals of the millennium”.

Today, there are similar banks in Saudi Arabia, Leban-on, Jordan, Iraq, Tunisia and Syria. 

And Al Shohdi added, “We are targeting Libya, Yemen, Sudan, Bahrain and Pakistan.” Several years after launching the Food Bank, the mother project gave birth to two more charity banks: Cure Bank and Clothing Bank.

Self-sustaining stage

“Most of the distributed clothes are new and not used.”   Some of the clothes are sold for a small amount of money.

 “The important thing in this work is to bring about the project in a way that makes people trusting enough to donate.  I open the door for donations, and I launch campaigns.”

For example, “When I agree with a dairy plant to have all its excess production distributed  among schoolchildren or orphans, this has a value. The factory also benefits from the donation receipt I give him which will be used to deduct taxes. At the end, the project of the Food Bank is charity work that doesn’t seek profit, depends on donations, but has to reach the self-sustaining stage.”