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Waste Not, Want Not

Wahab’s Solution to Conquering Food Waste in Qatar

Hotel brunches are a modern tradition in Doha—and while it’s great to celebrate the end of yet another working week, food waste is an inevitable byproduct of these lavish buffets. Some of us may feel slightly guilty as we tuck into yet another plate, but one expat couple actually did something about it. 

Rather than let perfectly edible food fester in landfills, Wardah Mamukoya and her husband Shahid Abdusalam established Wahab, a charity that safely collects leftovers and gives them to vulnerable populations. “The idea that we can buy—and later chuck out—large quantities of food because we can afford to do so, must change,” co-founder Wardah says. 

It started with just friends and family, but the charity now has a dedicated army of volunteers dubbed “food heroes”. With a five-member executive team to coordinate, food heroes arrive at hotels, restaurants and supermarkets to pick up food and deliver it to those in need. 

An abundance of food

Food waste is a huge concern for Qatar. According to estimates by EcoMENA, a Qatari-based environmental NGO, over half of Qatar’s garbage is composed of food waste. This is an especially worrisome figure for a country that imports most of its food products. It’s a bigger issue than any one organisation can handle, but doing nothing wasn’t an option.

“Wardah saw how much food was going to waste at hotel buffets. That just really struck her—this small thing she saw made a huge impact at the end,” says Reem Al-Muftah, the executive director of Wahab. She’s a Qatari business graduate with a passion for environmental issues. Part of the executive team, Reem is helping the group expand from a social organisation to a commercial enterprise.

There’s a strong incentive to give away edible food, as food producers and distributors have a maximum amount of waste they can dump. And as it turns out, many restaurants and hotels wanted help in fulfilling their CSR (corporate social responsibility) goals. CSR, at a basic level, is a way for corporations to make a positive contribution to their local communities. But they aren’t always knowledgeable about where they can make an impact—so that’s where Wahab stepped in, connecting businesses with communities in need. 

Participating businesses are given a list of foods that can be donated, as food safety protocols must be strictly followed to ensure all donations can be safely consumed. Some businesses will arrange for regular pick-ups, while others only have leftovers from one-off events. Whatever the availability, food heroes will pick up these leftovers and package them for distribution.  

Recipients typically include families and low-income migrant workers, often through food banks and local charities, but cultural sensitivities must be deftly navigated. The local culture emphasises giving—but receiving help, even when in need, is more difficult. While not many in Qatar are starving on the streets, there are families and migrant labourers that could directly benefit from donated food. 

Getting the community involved

“In the culture, it’s very easy to give help in the community, but it is very hard to accept because of pride,” says Reem. “[Some] just look at us and laugh, and say, ‘no, no, I won’t accept it!’” Promotional efforts through social media are also difficult, because few, understandably, want to be photographed accepting food. 

There’s never been a shortage of volunteers. You can always donate money, Reem points out, but people value using their own efforts to make a change. “It’s not always easy to find ways to give back to the community,” says Reem. Other individuals have donated the use of food delivery trucks and storage space. “We have had the opportunity to meet amazing people from different professions, coming together… to share their incredible enthusiasm and energy to help rescue food,” Wardah adds. 

Ramadan is the busiest time of year for Wahab. In keeping with the emphasis on giving and generosity, there is a special incentive for businesses and food distributors to ensure that any leftovers find their way to the poor. Volunteers will often be fasting themselves as they deliver packaged leftovers to local charities and food banks. 

Families also get involved during Ramadan. The children serve as an extra pair of hands during the busy season, but they also learn lessons about the importance of charity. The kids may also be trying to fast part or all of the day while they help out, so they can start to understand what it might be like to be hungry or have limited access to food. “[We’re] so surprised and almost expect the kids to cry,” says Reem, “I would cry!” Instead, the children often have smiles as they help load food delivery trucks or repackage leftovers. 

Wahab also runs workshops, mostly in schools, that educate students on the importance of reducing food waste. Children growing up in Qatar usually have little awareness about where their food comes from—and are not taught the value of conserving food. Like many urbanised kids, they have little exposure to farms and fields. 

An environmental leader

Another big sticking point is the overwhelming use of plastic in food packaging. “Going green will cost you,” explains Reem. “Recyclable materials are more expensive to purchase.” Educational efforts to get food distributors to switch to biodegradable packaging are ongoing, but the impact is still small.
Last year, Wahab was recognised as an environmental leader when they were chosen as finalists in the Challenge 22 competition in the sustainability category. “We didn’t make it through to the final, but for us, it showed that we were doing something headed in the right direction,” Reem says. 

Through Challenge 22, they were mentored by QBIC (Qatar Business Incubation Center), which advises Qatar-based start-ups. That experience helped them make the transition from a purely charitable group to a self-sustaining business. The current business model aims to tackle the problem of inedible food waste by turning it into compost. 

“We went through different ideas,” recalls Reem. “[There was] a link we had to make between edible and inedible food, and how to tackle both by optimising what we had and what we could do.” There’s currently no local supplier of organic compost, and Wahab plans to enter and develop that market to support their charitable activities. For the moment, they are purchasing composting machines that will be rented out and maintained for local businesses. 

While there was local interest in reducing food waste before the blockade, the movement towards sustainability has only accelerated. “In reality, [Qatar] was always looking at it,” says Reem. And it is true that environmental development is a key part of the Qatar National Vision 2030. The blockade has sped up the process, as it has highlighted the need for investment in local environmental initiatives and underscored the inherent danger in relying on neighbouring countries for precious resources. 

From the simple idea of taking leftovers to needy populations, Wahab has grown into an organisation that takes both its social and commercial aspects seriously. “[There is] a local motivation for environmental entrepreneurship and sustainability,” says Reem. It’s being nurtured more than ever before as Qatar looks to reduce waste and encourage sustainability in a more focused direction. But Wahab will never stray far from their core mission: rescuing food from landfills and giving it to those in need.

Want to get involved with Wahab? Contact them at 5503-8018, info@wahab.qa or follow them on social media. 

Facebook: facebook.com/wahab.qa
Twitter: @wahab_qa
Instagram: @wahab_qa 

Disclaimer: Doha Family’s Food Contributor, Kim Wyatt, is a co-founder of Wahab. However, she did not contribute to the writing of this article.

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