Students create a business model for combating hunger

For 35 years Huzaifa Ahmad’s mother opened her home each afternoon to people who were hungry and fed them food she had cooked for them, hundreds of them.

Then one day in 2015 Huzaifa was pondering on the contradiction that lots of eating places throw away food every day when so many had nothing to eat, and he turned to his friend Qasim Javid Khan and said: “There is a lot of food being wasted and a lot of people going hungry. Let’s do something.”

Huzaifa and Qasim were both second year students at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), Pakistan. Not sure what to do, but with another student friend Musa Aamir, they set up a Facebook page saying: “If anyone has excess food, give us a call.”

The post immediately went viral among students at the school. “Soon people started calling and we bunked off classes to pick up food and drop it,” Qasim told University World News.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

The boys felt they had started something worthwhile, but they didn’t know where to go with it, or how to make it last. Fortunately, LUMS hosted the first social enterprise incubator in Pakistan, the Social Innovation Lab (SIL), which provides a testing ground for aspiring student entrepreneurs. It helps students design business models and brands and find partners who are willing to take them to scale. Musa put in an application.

“They came to us and said Huzaifa’s mother does a wonderful job, but what will happen when she dies?” Maryam Mohiuddin, the founder and director of SIL, told University World News. “That is the shortcoming of the charity model, relying on a charismatic leader. So we helped them figure out how to monetise this model. They were very hesitant as they had seen Huzaifa’s mother give food away for free all her life but business folks were telling them to make money.”

“SIL gave us structure to the chaos,” says Qasim, who is now 26. “It made us think how to tackle the problem of hunger, food insecurity and food wastage structurally.

“That’s when we started thinking about sustainability, business modelling, marketing. Before that we were just three friends on a mission to do good.”

First breakthrough

While the LUMS community played its part in uplifting what they were doing, SIL gave them access to mentors and advice. One of them asked, ‘Why are you only picking up food on a Saturday and Sunday. Are you doing this to solve a problem or for your own personal gratification?”

That brought them up sharp and they realised they had to pick up seven days a week and develop a model that would make that work, which meant not relying on just the three of them but creating something that would keep running whether they were busy at college or not.

The first breakthrough came when a major restaurant in Lahore owned by a college alumnus gave them excess food to redistribute on a daily basis.

They gave the project a name, Rizq (which is Arabic for provisions); bought a rikshaw van to use as an “ambulance for food recovery”; circulated a number on social media and started taking orders from anyone with excess food.

The bright yellow and salmon ‘Rizqshaw’, decorated with a poster of a child and the slogan, ‘Don’t waste, share food’, began weaving its way through the dry dusty streets of Lahore daily to pick up food and deliver to people who need it most.

Along with the logistics, the trio – all three of whom are economists – spent time mapping out the city of Lahore in terms of areas of poverty, looking for slums and communities in need of food, and in terms of where the excess food is, creating ‘Rizqbanks’ from which they would distribute excess food.

“We studied global models, food-bank networks and realised every country seems to have them except Pakistan, so we developed the first food bank in the same community where we were channelling excess food from households, catering companies and restaurants,” says Qasim.

“It might be a simple idea but it is a radical idea,” says Musa. “You are feeding people excess food.”

As they looked further into why people were going hungry, they designed other projects, including a school lunch programme for underprivileged government and non-government schools; and a flagship Rizq Ration programme which identifies and verifies families in need in targeted communities and provides assistance in the form of food supplies twice a month, at half the normal price to applicants who have been registered and approved.

“To achieve sustainability, we try to charge at every level,” Qasim says. “So we charge the restaurant, because we are giving them a logistical or individual service. And while at first we gave away food to individuals, now we have a business-to-business model where we charge NGOs a monthly fee for giving people the food they need.

“Some NGOs are willing and some are resisting. But we are trying to persuade them to accept fees.”

The ‘Uber of food distribution’

Through mapping the places that need food and those with excess, the hope, Qasim says, is that Rizq can become “the Uber of food distribution” and “end up being a logistical company”, but one “which will solve the problem of food accessibility in Pakistan”.

Under the latest business model the beneficiary pays 50%, the NGO pays 25% and Rizq pays 25%, the latter share being funded via individual and corporate donors.

At the moment Rizq is running 11 food banks in Lahore and four in Islamabad.

“We save one ton of excess food daily via 50 partners, and with that we support 1,200 families on a monthly basis through the Rizq Ration programme,” Qasim says.

Another Rizq project, Rizq Daig (Cauldron), feeds 500 people daily.

The families they are helping are among the world’s poorest, earning PKR12,000 to PKR18,000 (US$75 to US$112) per month, Qasim says.

“Mostly they are people paid by the day, such as domestic help, food vendors, some with their own cart, or labourers. It means they can save US$10 a month,” says Qasim.

Scaling up nationally

When COVID-19 hit Pakistan, individuals, corporations and government approached Rizq and asked them to help with food banks. “That’s when we really scaled up and had a national footprint, distributing food rations in 23 cities around the country,” Qasim says.

Their efforts, using a mobile phone app, earned Huzaifa and another Rizq leader, Syed Hassaan Irfan, international recognition in the form of a Commonwealth Points of Light Award, bestowed by the UK monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, for “mobilising an army of 3,000 volunteers and distributing 2.2 million meals to the most vulnerable people, saving 20,000 kg of excess food that would otherwise have gone to waste”.

According to the sharerizq website, Rizq volunteers working to create a ‘Hunger Free Pakistan’ have enabled more than seven million meals to be served and put more than 600,000 kgs of excess food to good use feeding people.

These days Rizq has a certain cachet and produces its own branded merchandise with the slogan öi, Rizq, ‘Love Does Feed’. Profits go to making the Rizq programmes more sustainable.

Along with tennis star Aisam-ul-Haq, Rizq has launched a Stars Against Hunger campaign which auctions the signed clothes of sports superstars, from global tennis stars such as Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova to football stars such as Cafu and Sadio Mane, cricket stars such as Shoaib Akhtar and Shoaib Malik, and motor racing and boxing stars Michael Schumacher and Amir Khan respectively.

Mobilising young people

A major part of Rizq’s success stems from its mobilisation of young people in universities and via social media.

“We set up university chapters in different universities around the country in cities we are working in,” says Qasim. “In Lahore and Islamabad we have 22 of them in different institutions. These volunteers are our backbone, we have around 3,000 to 4,000 youth leaders across the 22 hapters.”

This is a large share of the 10,000 volunteers mobilised across the country who help with campaigning and fundraising, in addition to 32 full-time employees.

“As an organisation we want to focus on youth development,” Qasim says. “We believe this is the age when compassion is on the rise and they can take ownership of their own communities and change society.”

The support from SIL was also critical, especially the way it ingrained the idea of business modelling.

“The model we created was to set up social enterprise incubators and youth and women centres that provide experiential learning – learning by doing,” says Maryam Mohiuddin. “That’s something we strongly believe, especially for entrepreneurship, that you can’t teach in the classroom.”

The second aspect the model involved was using “pedagogy that borrowed from our South Asian culture, its wisdom, traditions and religious traditions”.

Regenerative design

She said there is a deliberate attempt to depart from the standard economic ideas of linear and exponential growth and think along the lines of a circular economic model, incorporating lots of “regenerative design” into their work, an idea which has been taken up globally by the Talloires Network of Engaged Universities, Mohiuddin says.

She believes universities “can be great centres of social change if they choose to be”, but “one of the things they need to start doing and really focus on – which we push with all partners – is giving space to indigenous and local religious traditions. We have given up and replaced our traditional wisdom practices with a lot of Global North pedagogies that are good but incomplete”.

“The Western approach is to take data, convert it into information and use it to create knowledge. Indigenous pedagogies go further because they ask you to connect knowledge with the higher purpose of life, so the next step is wisdom. In our model we have a dialogue of wisdoms,” she says.

She points to the three Rizq founders, “deeply grounding their work in the Isalmic Sufi tradition, in which it is a shame if even one member of the community goes hungry, so it is the duty of the leader, or even the community leader, to ensure that no one goes to sleep hungry at night. That is what inspired those boys,” said Mohiuddin.

Maryam Mohiuddin is one of four panel speakers in an online webinar being held this Wednesday, 27 January 2021, in which University World News, in partnership with the Mastercard Foundation, will be bringing together experts and practitioners from across the world from the International Association of Universities, the Talloires Network of Engaged Universities, the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program and the Social Innovation Lab to discuss: How can universities improve their social impact? You can register to participate here.