Waste not, want not: Import-reliant NENA region seeks solutions to consumption and storage issues

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A Saudi boy among plenteous boxes of dates. Below: A man looks for items to recycle in rubbish in Gaza City, and a pile of rotting food that has gone to waste. (AFP)
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While millions of people in mostly poor countries scavenge to eke out a living, huge food wastage has reached an alarming point in some rich countries such as in the GCC area. (Getty Images)
Updated 16 October 2018
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Waste not, want not: Import-reliant NENA region seeks solutions to consumption and storage issues

  • Food security institutions around the world mark World Food Day today, to honor the founding date of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)
  • KSA's consultative Shoura Council is looking into a food waste law that could see individuals and organizations fined for excessive waste

DUBAI: With food loss and waste in the Near East and North Africa (NENA) estimated at up to 250kg per person and more than $60 billion annually, a number of initiatives are aiming to tackle the issue across the region, which relies heavily on global food imports, has limited potential to increase production and faces a scarcity of water and arable land.

They’re not alone, as food security institutions around the world mark World Food Day on Tuesday, to honor the founding date of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 1945. 

“If, on a global level, we could recover one third of food wasted, it could feed 870 million people,” said Colin Kampschoer, communications officer at the UN’s World Food Program. “In 2017, one in nine people didn’t have enough to eat — this equals 821 million people. Globally, a third of the food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted, amounting to about 1.3 billion tons per year. For example, at the moment we waste almost half of the fruit and vegetables we produce in the world, while we waste 24 million slices of bread each day.”

Saudi Arabia ranks first in the world in food waste per capita. According to the FAO, reducing food loss and waste is vital for sustainable food systems and regional food security. “The high percentage of imported food into the region, combined with the Middle East being a major contributor to food waste, means that it places a heavy burden on the earth’s resources, including water, energy and fossil fuels, that are required to produce and distribute food,” said Ryan Ingram, founder of TerraLoop, a food loss and waste consulting company in the UAE. 

“Greenhouse gas emissions associated with food waste are 25 times more harmful to the environment and accelerate climate change. If food waste were a country, it would rank as the third highest emitter of greenhouse gases behind China and the US.”

The region loses and wastes up to 20 percent of cereals, 50 percent of fruits and vegetables, 16 percent of meat and 27 percent of fish and seafood. 

The FAO estimates that food waste at the consumption stage in the region is 34 percent, and is found mostly in urban areas. Significant wastage is also said to take place during religious holidays, wedding ceremonies and family gatherings, and in the hospitality industry such as in restaurants and hotels. “Major weaknesses for the region include a significant lack of arable land, water scarcity, a hot climate, insufficient investment in agricultural research and high dependence on global and regional markets,” Ingram said. “This is in addition to population growth and increasing local food consumption each year, which also place increased pressure on already-strained food and water resources.”

Food consumption in the GCC has grown from 48.1 million metric tons in 2016, with estimates that it will reach 59.2 million metric tons in the GCC by 2021. And with a compound annual growth rate of 4.2 percent and 800 million undernourished people in the world, much work needs to be done. 

“The Middle East, like most prosperous societies, has access to plentiful food supplies,” said Jeffrey Culpepper, chairman of Agrisecura in the UAE, which provides sustainable solutions for food security purposes. “That excess promotes waste, especially in high-end hotels and restaurants. Many times, portions are valued in quantity, not quality, so too much is put on your plate.” 

He said hot climates add to difficulties in storing surpluses. “Mandatory management of food waste by governments is required,” he added. “As opposed to dumping in landfills, it can be digested into bio-fuel or composted. By having smaller portions on the plate, savings can be used to offset storage cost of waste for collection.”

Landfills are also quickly reaching capacity. “By recycling food waste, it will take pressure off landfills and create useful byproducts like bio-fuel and compost,” Culpepper said. “Also, in a world where food shortages and hunger are a major problem in many countries, wasting food has become a moral issue.”

Others called for implementing a law to combat food waste, such as enforcing a fee on restaurant-goers who leave unfinished plates. “Monitoring large food-waste producers, like catering companies, hotels, markets, malls and airlines, is vital,” Ingram said. “There is also a need for national and regional guidance and awareness campaigns in all sectors, including residential, commercial and government, as well as pre-Ramadan.”

He suggested measuring waste at the source and creating a feedback loop to the supply chain so that procurement is reduced. “What gets measured, gets managed,” Ingram added. “Developing community projects that tackle food waste at the source and educating the producers and public about the issue and how to be a part of the solution, can also help. Developing policies that help overcome future food security challenges requires further research, and development and future strategies need to be aligned with research and development to ensure resilience and sustainability.”

Many initiatives are starting to emerge across the region to tackle the issue. The UAE Food Bank collects food from hotels, restaurants, supermarkets and farms to distribute to people in need, such as laborers.

Terra Loop sees itself as the Middle East and Indian Ocean’s first food waste auditing consultancy, helping people to understand their food waste, from five-star hotels and resorts to shopping malls and restaurants. Its objective is to guide them to solutions that reduce their “FoodPrint,” taking responsibility and improving their bottom line.

In Saudi Arabia, the Eta’am Food Bank, launched in 2010, helps to feed the underprivileged by distributing excess food from hotels, banquets and weddings to the poor and needy. “Other corporates in the Eastern Province now also participate in the scheme,” Ingram added. “Eta’am also promotes food-related culture and provides hands-on experience in the safe preparation of food through the Food Academy Initiative.” 

Moreover, the Kingdom’s consultative Shoura Council is looking into a food waste law that could see individuals and organizations fined for excessive waste. It also proposed the establishment of a national center to offer guidance and awareness on food waste. 

“There is a growing awareness in local communities on the problem of excess food waste with several local initiatives having been started to recycle residential food waste,” Culpepper said. “These efforts are important but still too small to make a significant difference. The big generators of food waste are hotels, restaurants, schools, hospitals and government institutions, as opposed to residential, so it will require a government policy to force commercial food-waste producers to recycle.”


Saudi women’s social enterprise protects Syrian refugees from hunger, thirst and loneliness

Jonnah store sells minimal wear made by women and men at Al-Azraq Refugee Camp, and designed by fashion designers from Saudi Arabia. (Photos/Supplied)
Updated 19 November 2018
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Saudi women’s social enterprise protects Syrian refugees from hunger, thirst and loneliness

  • “Jonnah” in Arabic means the shield. According to Al-Bassam, their store’s name is borrowed from a Hadith by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in which he said “Fasting is a shield”
  • Joined in compassion for the refugees, Al-Bassam and Aburas co-founded the Jonnah store

JEDDAH: “As you return home, to your home, think of others, do not forget the people of the camps,” said Mahmoud Darwish in one of his most well-known poems, “Think of Others.” Darwish was regarded as the Palestinian national poet and lived between 1941 and 2008.
Fatimah Al-Bassam, 26 (@FatimaAlBassam) and Nouf Aburas, 28 (@Noufaburas) are two young Saudi women who were on a voluntary trip to Al-Azraq camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan when they decided to start a social business to offer a sustainable solution to help the refugees.
“The idea began in October 2017. We were in the camp on a trip organized by volunteering group and Care International,” Al-Bassam told Arab News.
It all began with a question. “The group’s guide from the camp asked us about the most significant problem the people suffered from at the camp. The volunteers gave several answers like hunger, poverty, lack of health care, but the true answer actually was idleness,” she added.
Al-Bassam said the refugees have been living in this situation for years. Their minimum needs, such as shelter, clothes, and food are usually met by relief organizations, but they have nothing to do but wait in their caravans or tents for time to pass.
The refugees are full of energy and enthusiasm but the opportunities are not there. “During the visit, I met a lady who told me that she graduated from a sewing course and has a certificate. She wants to practice her skill but she has nothing to do,” Al-Bassam said.
“I was thinking, they have people who are good at sewing. They have sewing factories, but they do not have the opportunities to work, and that’s what they need, a sustainable solution.”
Al-Bassam and Aburas joined in compassion for the refugees and co-founded the social development enterprise Jonnah store.
In addition to her full-time job, Al-Bassam is a member of a volunteering group that organizes trips, many of which focus on the refugee crisis. Aburas already has experience in a social enterprise to support women in Saudi Arabia.
They collaborated with Care International in Jordan (@CAREJor), one of the main humanitarian agencies in the camp.
Jonnah store (@jonnahstore) creates the right conditions to motivate the Syrian refugees to play an active role in alleviating the suffering of their society members, overcoming economic, social and cultural challenges, and enabling them to meet their primary needs of security, shelter, food, health and education.
This happens by giving refugees the opportunity to practice their skills. It is a store that sells minimal wear made by people at the camp and designed by fashion designers from Saudi Arabia.
“Jonnah” in Arabic means the shield. According to Al-Bassam, their store’s name is borrowed from a Hadith by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in which he said “Fasting is a shield,” because it shields the believer from himself, from his wrongdoings, and from behaving foolishly and impudently.
“We want the Jonnah project to be the tool by which refugees protect themselves from hunger, thirst, and loneliness through the money they are making and the community that is being built,” said Al-Bassam.
“I have a social business in Saudi Arabia. I am interested in social issues, and poverty in particular,” Aburas told Arab News.
She is the founder of Kurt (@kurtstore), a social enterprise she founded in 2013 which supports local, disadvantaged women and teaches them tailoring so they can produce abayas as a sustainable means to fight poverty.
“We did not want to go back home without doing anything. When we returned to Saudi Arabia we recognized that I had experience in a sewing and clothing business and Fatimah had experience in volunteering work and she had the contacts, so we founded Jonnah.”
Al-Bassam and Aburas went to the camp in Jordan again in December 2017 to start the business.
They started with six refugees working in the factory, and the number later increased to eight. And they are willing to increase the number of benefitting refugees as they grow their business.
It took them three months to produce the first collection. They faced some obstacles at the beginning, one being communication with the organization at the camp, which has many other priorities.
“It’s hard sometimes, because they are a relief organization. They are not business oriented, so sending and receiving emails back takes some time,” said Al-Bassam.
Moreover, achieving the desired product quality does not happen immediately. Aburas said that raising a social enterprise has the same challenges as any other enterprise: Following regulations in the country, keeping a consistent production line, and maintaining quality. All of that needs continuous effort and faces some obstacles.
“You want a bigger impact, but to make the impact you have to go through everything,” she said.
However, there is an important difference between a social business and any other business.
“You make more profit, not in order to make more money, but you make more profit to help more people so you have a bigger impact. More money is just the tool,” Aburas said.
Sometimes people do not understand the concept of how social enterprises work. They may think that the refugee or the beneficiary receives 100 percent of the money they pay, but that is not how the business works. Everything has a cost and the company needs the money to keep going and benefit more people.
Jonnah Store goods are sold through Instagram, and they also participate in exhibitions. Al-Bassam and Aburas aspire to expand their project to reach more customers. They hope to launch their website, hire more refugees, collaborate with more designers, and cooperate with more companies in Saudi Arabia and in the world.
Jonnah sells female clothing in the meantime. In addition to Jonnah’s line of designs, it has expanded its business plan; Jonnah can be the interface between the designers and the factory at the camp.
“We would tell them: You are going to produce your collection anyway. Give us a sample and the material, and we will have your collection produced in Al-Azraq camp,” Aburas said.
“What really distinguishes Jonnah is that it has occupied refugees’ time and improved their social life as well. They gather in the factory every day from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., learn new things and get to know their neighbors. They feel that they have a goal in their lives,” Al-Bassam said.
“I remember when we came back to the camp the second time, I found some volunteers wearing the clothes they worked on. They actually bought them from Jonnah.”
One of the seamstresses told them: “I have never been so proud of myself as I am now.”
Another one said: “Since I was in Syria I dreamed of sewing clothes for others. Now I see people wearing the clothes I made. I feel that my dream is coming true.”
For Al-Bassam, the issue is not only about having a sustainable income, but also about their psychology, in how what they do is reflected on their self-confidence and sense of hope.
“You only need to be human to have empathy and compassion for the refugees,” she said.
“When we went to the seamstresses and tailors, we thought we were going to help them, but we found that we were the ones who drew strength and energy from them,” said Aburas.
Moreover, Jonnah received good feedback from custumers. “We had custumers who bought the clothes because they liked them, and we had those who bought from us as an act of compassion and benevolence. For example, some men would buy from us for their sisters and mothers,” she said.
Syria is the biggest humanitarian and refugee crisis of our time, a continuing cause of suffering for millions which should be garnering a groundswell of support around the world, said Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
The Syria crisis has accelerated more dramatically than any crisis on earth. Syrians continue to be the largest forcibly displaced population in the world, exceeding Afghanistan and Somalia by millions of people.
More than half of the prewar population has been internally displaced or forced to seek safety in neighboring countries. That’s more than 12 million people, including some 6.3 million people who have escaped across the borders.
According to the latest factsheet published in October by the refugee agency UNHCR, the Blue Camp (Azraq) in Jordan is home to 40,712 Syrian refugees, nearly 22 percent of whom are under five years old.
Opened on April 30, 2014, the camp stretches in a 14.7 square-kilometer area; 75 km away from Saudi Arabia’s national borders, and 90 km away from Syria.
The camp is managed in co-coordination with the Syrian Refugee Affairs Directorate and UNHCR.
Al-Bassam said that the refugee crisis is a combination of more than one problem. People in the camps not only lack basic needs of shelter and food, they have also lost their homes and experienced horrific events.
“I believe governments are not doing enough, and we as individuals are not doing enough. We can do a lot more. I always wanted to do something for them,” she said.
“As Jonnah, we go to the camp by ourselves to receive the goods, we meet with the staff and listen to their suggestions and complaints, and we pay them by ourselves,” she added.
“We do not want it to be just a business. Direct communication makes them feel our appreciation and attention, and that in itself makes us want to keep going.”
Mahmoud Darwish ended his poem with the following line: “As you think of others far away, think of yourself, say: ‘If only I were a candle in the dark’.”