Issue 71 August 2010
As the month of Ramadan approaches, many Muslims will be determined to cut down on the food they waste. Mahmud Al-Rashid interviews â€¨Moez El-Shohdi, a man who has applied his extensive corporate skills to the stop the waste and help the needy.
“O children of Adam! Eat and drink freely, but do not waste for God does not love the wasteful.” Qur’an (7:31)
“Sufficient food for the son of Adam is enough to keep his back straight.” Prophet Muhammad
Five years ago in Cairo, a group of fifteen concerned friends and relatives got together to launch the Egyptian Food Bank (EFB). All were highly successful business people in their own right and they wanted to “do something” for the needy in their society. In lightening short time this domestic NGO has acquired the status most businesses can only aspire to. With the goal of eradicating hunger in Egypt by 2020, “this is something we will achieve by the help of God,” declares Moez El-Shohdi, CEO of the Food Bank and one of the founding friends.
El-Shohdi is a Business Management graduate from Cornell University, New York and holds a PhD in Management from the same Ivy League university. For over 30 years he has been in the hotel trade in Egypt running a chain of top hotels. Now he devotes his prime hours to the EFB, whilst still maintaining his position as President of Style Hotel International. “Five years ago we were inspired by our friend Wael Olama, that in order to express our gratitude to God for our individual successes we should put our knowledge and talents towards helping those less fortunate in our society,” recalls Shohdi. “After all, that is the fundamental message of Islam,” he declares. “We were all professionals who had a high level of management skills and so we decided to put those skills towards removing the problem of hunger in Egypt,” he explains. With distant echoes of the epic task that had befallen Joseph (Prophet Yusuf), the EFB took to its mission with great gusto. Presently employing 130 people, there is a department that identifies local NGOs already engaged in the alleviation of poverty and trains them in programmes designed for effective food distribution, including marketing, strategising and fund-raising. “We currently work with 870 credible and efficient domestic NGOs, whose members do the work on the ground for us,” Shohdi explains. “They identify families that are needy. We have two categories of needy: those that are not able to work for a living, eg. the orphans, the very elderly, the disabled, widowed mothers with young children, and those that are able to work but lack the necessary skills. To the first group we offer immediate assistance without any prerequisites; to the second group we offer assistance straight away with the condition that a member of the family joins our skills training programme. Altogether we provide food to one hundred thousand families per month.”
A kitchen staff at a resort hotel carefully packs left-over food from an “all-inclusive” hotel buffet
By providing training, the EFB hopes to not only alleviate hunger but build a skills base within family members to make them self-sufficient. “In our first year of running this programme we helped train 2,800 people; the following year that rose to 10,000,” Shohdi cites with a twinkle and a smile. “We have trained electricians, carpenters, gardeners, housekeepers, plumbers and educated 1,800 women on how to prepare for motherhood.”
One of the EFB’s most successful food projects is in the distribution of udhiyya – or fresh meat sacrificed during the Eid al-Adha. This then led to the idea of canning cooked meat to provide throughout the whole year. “In 2006,” Shohdi recalls, “we provided fresh meat to 36,000 families and gave out 60,000 cans. The next year this rose to 100,000 families and 750,000 cans; in 2008 we gave fresh meat to 200,000 families and one million cans of cooked meat; last year we supplied half a million families and distributed three and half million cans.” Such dramatic rise in numbers reflects the professionalism and organisational skills brought by Shohdi and his team into the NGO arena, but it doesn’t end there. “We had expanded our personal businesses through further investments; for the EFB we exercised the principle of al-waqf – investing for the public good. So we bought shares in two large farms that enabled us to generate profits for the EFB as well as freeze the price of sheep so as to make it affordable for people to carry out their religious duty of the Eid sacrifice. We have also invested in a food packaging factory that provides us with an annual profit of 50m Egyptian pounds.”
Despite these remarkable successes in such a short time, the major achievement of the EFB lies in what it has done in the hotel catering industry. “It is customary in Ramadan for people to share their food and give to the poor. But Ramadan only lasts for a month and people need food throughout the year. I have been a hotelier for 33 years and I know many of the hotel managers. So I contacted them, especially the resort hotels. The rise of ‘all inclusive’ tourist packages has meant that a huge amount of food remains uneaten every mealtime. Likewise with Egyptian weddings, which have lavish quantities of food, much of which remains untouched.” The hotels have been persuaded by Shohdi to pack the remaining food into sealed containers and the EFB then arranges distribution. “We expected about one million packs per month,” says Shohdi, “but in our first month we received 5.4 million packs! So I told our staff we could do better. I contacted the Egyptian Hotel Association which then sent a memo out to all the hotels asking them to participate in our project. We now get 60 million meals per month which we distribute with great delight through volunteers all over the country.” If you imagine that each meal costs about 20 Egyptians pounds, that’s 320m pounds that would have been thrown away every month. “That is not acceptable,” exclaims Shohdi, “it is against basic Islamic values. It is a totally wrongful waste – israf. Muslims need direction about how they can practically live the values of their religion. People need to change their way of thinking and I am honoured the EFB is playing an important part in changing that culture and to be able to offer the wealthy hoteliers a way to help the needy in society. This, I believe, is my greatest achievement. And I am particularly delighted that we have managed to get the children of wealthy people to take food to their less wealthy neighbours, instead of always expecting the poor to come begging to the rich. This is more dignified; this is what my religion says, so I am honoured.”
Inspired by the impact of the EFB projects, Shohdi is exporting the idea to his neighbours. “I have been visiting Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Palestine advising hoteliers on how they can reduce food wastage and at the same time benefit needy people. There is too much food wasted in our world. That is wrong.”
The EFB model has been a resounding success. El-Shohdi now wants to create another bank – the Al-Shifa Bank, which will apply the same management expertise to the sick and infirm. Egypt is historically renowned for its medical practitioners, yet access and affordability of medical advice and treatment remains a problem. The Al-Shifa Bank hopes to change that situation. “Aren’t you doing the work of the government?” I ask Shohdi. “We all have to do what we can; it is our personal responsibility. We cannot just look to the government always.” Perhaps there’s a lesson in that for our society too.
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