In a quest to eliminate hunger and help less-privileged communities get through financial crunches, UAE-based Ayesha Khan, originally from Gujarat, India, kickstarted the cheapest Food ATM in the country, a service that delivers three-course meals to 2,600 blue-collar workers daily in Dubai, Sharjah, and Ajman, priced at just AED 3.
Whipping Up Happiness
Ayesha’s journey started with stints in the IT engineering arena and working as part of several Government of Dubai projects after moving to Dubai in 2005. She enjoyed a fairly high-profile professional tenure but what gave her heart contentment was feeding the less privileged. “As a stress buster, I would cook and then distribute my experimental meals to all the cleaners, drivers, gardeners at my workplace. They all were very appreciative, and unknowingly, I started playing a role in their lives. Their savings were being sent home, and life situations were getting addressed in their native land like education being funded, elderly getting medications, and that’s what made me really upbeat about what I was doing,” she shares.
Genesis of The Food Atm
A grateful army of blue-collar workers would catch up with Ayesha for occasional chats at her office, and that’s how dawned the realization of how she was now playing an integral part in their lives.
Further conversations with them helped Ayesha understand their plight deeper, and that’s where the idea of a Food ATM sowed seeds. Finally, she stepped up to take her initiative to the next level.
“All these workers I spoke to used to have debit cards from their banks wherein their salaries used to get credited. But their wages being too low, used to be all spent by sending home to their families by the 1st week of credit itself. They used to laugh at their pains, saying that they certainly have a card in their pockets, but the card has nothing in it.
So I decided to make a Smart-Card for them which doesn’t have money in there but has meals till the last dinner of every month. Hence the name ‘Food-ATM’ which they can relate to,” Ayesha reveals.
Priced at AED 3, keeping the cost of healthy, nutritious daily meals fairly economical has made it affordable for lower-income workers to not compromise on food as well as have savings kept aside for their respective families.
Interestingly, Ayesha believes that not being from the food industry has helped largely in keeping the business policy and CSR objective intact. “The quantity of food we offer as part of any meal is large enough to support any worker’s hunger needs. The meal is nutritious too,” she observes. Her weekly menu consists of seven different breakfasts, lunches, and dinners comprising veggies, eggs, and meats. “500ml water is also offered with every meal for the workers, making it an attractive combination of Hot Meals + Cold Water,” Ayesha adds.
Challenges, No Bar
However, it’s not been all hunky-dory for Food-ATM has bravely weathered several storms with a smile. Narrating these Ayesha reminisces, “Intending to be of help to the industrial area workers, I chose Al Jurf 2, Industrial area in Ajman, UAE to set up the Food-ATM facility. However, instead of allowing me to operate and support the workers herein, I was faced with adverse situations such as hostile behavior and mental-physical abuse. Some workers actually pelted stones on my car, with some stones also hitting me, causing my feet to bleed. After a lot of searching as to why and who was trying to harm me, I got to know that some of the workers who had a cafeteria owned by friends/relatives in the vicinity suspected me to be a rival and hence wanted to drive me away. Facing several hardships, I somehow sustained the facility and kept going without any local business, instead getting work from various corporates outside the industrial area,” Ayesha shares.
As if these roadblocks weren’t enough, the pandemic posed as another storm just when the Food-ATM facility stabilized a bit. While there were some regular business opportunities, the venture faced severe cost fluctuations for each raw material, packaging material, etc. Yet, we needed to maintain a low-cost Aed 3/- per meal.
“All our payments were overdue for over 3 to 4 months since customers were in no-business status owing to the pandemic,” Ayesha opens up. Apart from this, a few staff members on annual leave got stuck outside UAE due to no flights to return and strict travel bans, and Food-ATM had to operate in full-fledged operations with less manpower at hand.
Having shone through these storms, today several organizations who support this CSR initiative are joining hands with Food-ATM to provide consistent support to the lower-income communities through partnerships for commodities and work orders so that the reach can be increased, in a bid to touch more lives. The venture has fetched coveted recognitions such as Award & Appreciation certificates from Ajman Chamber of Commerce & Ajman Government CSR Department, Microsoft recognition in the Social Impact startups entrepreneurship program ME, Dr. Mahmoud Al Burai, Sr Advisor, Government of Dubai, selection & endorsement for Refugees Project, UAE, among others. Apart from this, it has also participated and achieved the Guinness World Record of providing 50,000 meals to 50,000 needy lower-income workers in 5 hours. The venture has also associated with multinational companies like Ducatus, United Foods, Aseel LLC, etc., for daily meals and Ramadan support. Meanwhile, Ayesha has also been recognized as Mentor for Women Entrepreneurs at the United Nations (UN) Women in October 2021.
Nailing and scaling it with the Food ATM facility, Ayesha wishes only to continue feeding souls and brightening lives. “We are now planning our global presence in partnership with the local governments of each region. We’ll do it until there is a day when there are no lesser-privileged communities struggling to make ends meet,” a resilient Ayesha expresses.