Salvaging the future – tackling food waste in Kuwait
KUWAIT | Jethu Abraham
Even to the most undiscerning of minds, Kuwait’s culture of hyper-consumption and food wastage is so obvious, it is almost the norm. Restaurant tables with food left barely consumed or garbage fills piled high with unopened food packets and containers are seen ever too often. While the problem of waste disposal has been ever prevalent in Kuwait, the fact that almost fifty percent of the waste is solid food waste, is one that is quite harmful for the environment.
In 2014, when Maryam Aleisa returned from completing her studies in Barcelona, raring to start a social venture on her own, Kuwait’s food waste and its effect on the environment motivated her.
“We do not have a practice of segregating or composting food waste—it is simply dumped into massive landfills releasing methane gases into the environment, which is significantly more dangerous than carbon dioxide emissions, for climate change,” she says. “The leachate, liquid caused by food waste and other factors in landfills, is equally dangerous as it seeps into the groundwater and causes contamination and pollution. I realised that the whole food wastage problem was so unbelievable and unnecessary for us to have.”
While the food wastage was quite high, there were also underprivileged families who could not afford all their food needs. Being raised in a culture where she often saw her mother purchase food items from supermarkets to donate to the needy, she decided to put her experience to good use and Refood was born.
A SUSTAINABLE ECOSYSTEM
Started in 2014, the non-profit company aims to eliminate food waste through food rechannelling to achieve a sustainable ecosystem. This means obtaining food products nearing its expiration date from suppliers and distributing it to those in need.
“To begin with, I looked at different food bank models to understand how they worked. We looked at the North African models, the ones operating in South Korea and we actually visited the Saudi Food Bank where we saw how cooked food waste was salvaged,” Aleisa continues.
Despite the massive quantities of food waste generated by the hotel industry, limited resources and logistic issues meant that Aleisa turned to the FMCG food companies instead, which supplied food products to retail outlets.
“I started speaking to these companies and realised that food products which were taken off the shelves before their expiration dates were simply thrown away.”
The companies, in turn, were eager to support the concept of re-channelling the food instead of throwing it away and supported the team by starting off with supply of small quantities of dry food products. Soon, they offered them their full range of products.
“Once we gained the trust of some of the larger food companies, the others joined in and we signed contracts with them to salvage the food before it gets categorised as waste and supply it to Refood instead,” she says.
Yet another challenge was to have a physical location from where they could operate—a problem solved, when friends pitched in and permission was obtained to work from the warehouse of a government supermarket.
Initially, Aleisa, her mother and a few friends personally delivered the food packages to families in need but thanks to their website and social media pages, volunteers poured in and the team set up a registration system for the volunteers as well as one for the beneficiaries to apply.
In 2019, 2080 families were registered with Refood, with more than 452 tonnes of food being redistributed and 1000 packages being distributed every month. This meant that more than 1,292,640 KD worth of food was saved from being dumped into landfills.
With COVID-19, the company has had to change their programmes — with a lack of sponsors and many beneficiaries leaving the country, but Aleisa is hopeful that the team would be able to continue their operations in its previous scale, as food wastage is still a huge problem in Kuwait.
The ideal scenario, explains Aleisa, “is to live in a world where Refood wouldn’t need to exist.”