A total of 690 million people worldwide suffer from food insecurity, making it one of the most prevailing global struggles. At least 90 percent of people suffering from hunger and poverty are mainly residents of developing countries, including Egypt. In that light, the Egyptian Food Bank, founded in 2006, has carried on an urgent mission to fight hunger through innovative solutions, providing over 150 thousand families each month with nutritional supplies.
We sat down with Mohsen Sarhan, CEO of the Egyptian Food Bank (EFB), to know all about EFB’s programs and its efforts to serve the society and help those in need especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Sarhan holds a BA in Economics from the Faculty of Economics and Political Science at Cairo University, a diploma in International Markets from the Arab Academy, in addition to a Master’s degree in Management of Nonprofit and International Development Organizations from the American University in Cairo, and another Master’s degree in Public Administration from Harvard University.
Apart from being the CEO of the Egyptian Food Bank, Sarhan represents the International Association of Fundraising Professionals as the President of the Middle East and North Africa region.
First off, can you simplify to our readers the aim and function of the Egyptian Food Bank in general?
Historically, and throughout the last 15 years, EFB has been trying to provide food security to Egyptian citizens under the poverty line, mostly people who cannot sustain themselves and are unable to work. At the Egyptian Food Bank, we offer them help to avoid hunger.
With food being among the highly essential basic needs for all human beings, the less economically able classes even pay more attention to it and consider it their top basic need that needs urgent support and care. Therefore, just as we aim to provide them with food security, we are trying to help them lead a dignified life. This support provides daily living for more than 150 thousand families monthly. We support school nutritional programs as we have around 23 kitchens that serve 44 public schools with a number of students ranging from 35 thousand to 50 thousand on a daily basis. Furthermore, we support dozens of orphanages, nursing homes, and so on.
Take us through the Egyptian Food Bank’s efforts during the time of Covid-19 pandemic.
What I mentioned above are our initial commitments, but when the Coronavirus spread and the lockdown was imposed last March, we were in front of around 5 million Egyptians from the labor class whose incomes stopped due to the crisis. These people live from day to day, they have no savings, so when the crisis hit, they were instantly affected.
Consequently, since the crisis and the lockdown had happened around one month before the holy month of Ramadan, we repurposed all our production capacity that we were preparing for Ramadan to commit to an initial quantity of half a million families. On March 19, we drew how the production strategy is going to be executed, the content of the food packs, the distribution plan, etc. Two days later, we started a fundraising campaign that was followed by the first batch of distribution on March 22. It was a phenomenal and historical fundraising campaign that had never occurred before anywhere in the world.
‘The CEO Challenge’ initiative was launched, where most of the CEOs of the private sector from various fields stepped up and started calling each other to donate money for this stellar cause. It is worth mentioning that most of them are competitors; for instance, the four-telecom companies made an alliance led by the Minister of Communication and helped collect 250 thousand food packs. Corporate competition was put aside for the greater good; it was evident that there is a heart inside the machines.
The next step was the Individuals Fundraising, where hundreds of thousands of Egyptians donated; and only a week before Ramadan, we delivered half a million packs. Then, we made another commitment for another half a million packs during Ramadan. Our factory was topped up to its capacity, producing 40 thousand packs a day, we worked 24/7, and we were able to fulfill the extra half million. Therefore, in those two months, we delivered 1.5 million packs; this number is higher than what we had achieved in all of 2019.
In addition, we worked with our network of almost 5000 non-profit organizations across the 27 governorates, through which we delivered around 9 million hot meals in Ramadan. Besides our collaboration with the Ministry of Social Solidarity to provide the villages that were on lockdown with food; the day we received the request from the ministry, 10 trucks headed from our factory to these villages, and the next day they were all covered. This occurred more than once, and each time in less than 24 hours, we were able to deliver the packs.
We have also taken over [food supply] for university hospitals that have been turned into quarantine hospitals for Egyptians coming from abroad. It was a very harsh period, but we are glad we managed to be of value for people during it.
How did you manage to locate and reach all of these people?
We had to go a little experimental about that. Even though our database included only around 800 thousand Egyptian families, we set a goal to reach 1.5 million. Therefore, we launched a portal called ‘EFB Relief Programs’, which was a robust salesforce; so that if a large number of people applied, it would not crash. After only three days from launching it, we received about 150 thousand requests, so we closed it to deliver the requests and then reopened it again to receive the following patch of 150 thousand requests and so on. We were determined to reach as many people in need as possible.
Tell us more about the Middle East Institute Award and its value to you and to EFB.
It is truly an award that we didn’t call or ask for. I received an email from Paul Smith, the President of MEI, that we were nominated for that award; somehow our impact has been visible to them.
We received the Visionary Award, whose record of accomplishment signals how prestigious it is; therefore, we consider their recognition as a great honor.
EFB has also been contacted and praised by many global entities, such as Google, Ford UAE, Beiersdorf Global AG, and many more, and now the MEI. We got great press coverage from around the world in the past period, such as Britain, Japan, France, China, Norway and Saudi Arabia...
What is EFB’s edge in reaching people living on the edge?
If you perceive EFB from a corporate perspective, it has two major edges; the first edge is that we are very professional, we hire people who know what they have to do and have the mean to get it done, and the majority of my staff are people we transition from the private sector... We are a very professional organization, we do not reinvent the wheel, we take practices and we apply them with the highest operation standards possible.
The second edge is that we have a wide reach, we don’t work with only our headcount, we work with about 80,000 employees in 5000 associations who are our partners nationwide. We have a solid network with these associations and those employees; therefore, when we instruct them to execute a task, we are able to reach all of Egypt at the same time.
At the Egyptian Food Bank, we always aim to reach every Egyptian in need wherever he is, our convoys cover towns and areas that local NGOs in governorates do not reach due to their existence on the borders or the lack of operational capacity to reach everyone.
What are EFB’s plans for 2021?
Broad lines… We will turn from generic to very specialized. We have been greatly investing in providing general feeding, but now we will switch to a very specialized mode of nutritional support. The next step will be to have a specialized plan to feed for example the impoverished pregnant woman. That way, each pack will be designed for a specific purpose, targeting a more specific audience. We are also working on advanced tools to gauge the impact of these meticulously designed nutritional packs. Overall, we will focus on optimizing the service rather than scaling.
EFB is a social mediator; and therefore, we will have a bigger role in directing donations to places where they will make a difference to the quality of life.