Wahab:Tackling food waste in Qatar
Here in the small country of Qatar, the warm breeze from the sea smells fresh, and as you wander the streets in the old souk or along the boardwalk, one is struck by how clean the capital Doha is - pristine would even be a better word.
Qatar is considered the world's richest nation with the highest GDP per capita.
In fact, the United Nations has classified it as a country of very high human development, ranking it 33 out of 188 countries and territories.
This means that the general population has a higher standard of living compared to most countries; even among its fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) neighbours.
But, Qatar also has a huge food wastage problem.
According to ECOMENA, a Qatari-based research organization, the country has the highest rate of food wastage in the Middle East.
According to data in 2014, the average Qatari wastes up to 250 kilograms of food per year, compared to just 70 kg in other regions.
The problem caught the eye of Wardah Mamukoya, an Indian national who has been living in Qatar for two years. She founded Wahab, which means in Arabic to give. And it’s an organization determined to give to the community by addressing this growing problem.
“I've seen lots of food wastage here,” explains Mamukoya. “They have no concern regarding food wastage. I mean people want to do something, I've seen people talk about food wastage here, but it's crazy the amount of food wastage here, it's like why isn't anyone doing anything about it?”
She repeats a prophetic saying which reminded her that addressing this problem is important:
“He is not a believer who eats to his fill while his neighbour is hungry.”
Mamukoya says it was this thinking that got her worried:
“As a society we have failed, we can't identify who goes to bed hungry, and it doesn't have to be because of poverty issues, anybody could fall sick, there could be no food delivery to their house, various issues.”
And so a year ago, Wahab was born.
The young organization is currently run by five members, all foreigners save for the one Qatari, Shiekha al-Anoud al-Thani.
At Georgetown University in Doha, I sit down with the ladies to discuss how Wahab has been received in Qatar.
Kim Wyatt, from Australia, is the Chief Information Officer for Wahab, and a food editor.
She says that Qatar, like many other countries has the “perception that food is there, it’s convenient; there is no social responsibility for it.”
And in the case of Qatar, she adds “I think here in Qatar, certainly we’re a very disposable society”.
Even though booming industries have afforded Qatar a high quality of life, attitudes towards social responsibility in food waste is not always apparent, especially when nearly 90 percent of the food is imported.
That’s why Wyatt adds that part of their mission is to “try and inform people into reducing that and also rallying with government and other institutions to try and educate people into reducing food wastage.”
Contributing To Food Waste
Turkish nationals Emel Aktas and Hafize Sahin work closely with the Wahab team.
They work on the Safe-Q project that has been studying the statistics of food waste in Qatar.
Aktas says that after conducting 62 field interviews of people from the logistics companies, hospitality sector, retailers, hotels and consumers, they were able to identify “61 different factors which contribute to food wastage” specifically in Qatar.
The study, which is entering its third year, follows the habits of food waste from “farm to fork”, explains Aktas and Sahin.
That means they have been studying habits from when
the food is grown and processed, to when “ [we] package it and put it on the shelves for retailer[s], and even after post-purchase it is looking at the different stages to understand why food is wasted.” Adds Aktas.
Sahin stresses that the purpose of the study is “not to find ways to make use of the waste, but to raise awareness to reduce the waste.”
Disconnect with food
Much of the time, the attitude towards food waste comes from the disconnect one has to the food’s origin.
In the case of Qatar, that disconnect is greater than other developed countries, given the constraints to farming, “… in Qatar we only have 1 percent arable farming land” explains Wyatt. “And obviously that in itself is a difficult issue and the weather; the weather here is really, most of the year, it's hot, it’s 50 degrees.”
With very little connection to the farms, Qataris and expats have a consumer relationship with their food.
For that reason, Mamukoya explains that before Wahab can change that relationship, it will begin by concentrating on what can be done with the excessive food waste. So they are concentrating on “restaurants and supermarket chains so that we [can] begin with small scale operations and then go higher.”
To address the issue, Wahab “ask[s] restaurants if they would like to donate their extra food that they have, and from buffet banquets from weddings, [and] if they are willing to donate the food” then their volunteers deliver that food to food banks in Doha. The founder of Wahab stresses that the food must be clean, so the fear of food poisoning is not an issue.
While there are food banks across the capital, it’s hard to imagine who they serve exactly. Walking the streets of Doha, you’ll be hard pressed to find any starving people or beggars. But that’s not to say there aren’t people who still need help.
Many people have come to the country temporarily to work on construction sites, so they may not be making as much as someone working in the banks, for example.
And it’s in this area that Mamukoya says Wahab can help as it acts as the middleman between the food banks and those in need.
“ If we have excess food that restaurants are willing to give, what we do is connect volunteers who are ready to pick up the food, at the times specified by the restaurants, and deliver it to a food bank here in Qatar.” The food bank then delivers to the food to areas where it is needed, such as in the workers’ camps,she said.
Getting a taste
The real test for Wahab and its reception by Qataris came during the recent International Food Festival in March.
“We knew that Qatar International Food festival would be a good venue, because [there are] lots of restaurants there, and we can't anticipate the amount of people the kind of people going to the festival, [but] there might be lots of food wastage” explains Mamukoya.
In preparation for their debut, Wahab spoke to participating restaurants to ask if they would be willing to donate their extra food. Most were willing and able and appeared grateful that this was being done.
Wahab was well received at the festival, and Wyatt points out that since then, they have signed a contract to make it a proper business, so they can really get out “into the community and do more work for it.”
Elephant in the room
There is still an elephant in the room. While Wahab has found a solution in dealing with excessive food, it doesn’t address the source of the problem which comes from peoples’ attitudes towards wastage.
“The thing is when food is so readily available you lose the value of food, so we are trying to reduce food wastage at the root, as in you have to know the value of food, the accountability that comes with it” explains Mamukoya.
That being said, already Wahab is working in the community by going to schools and universities to speak to students about the problem of food wastage and accountability.
Sahin stresses though that education or consumer habits won’t fix the problem. It needs to be addressed from the very start. “From the farm to the fork,” she said.
That thinking is likely to work as Qatar is making efforts to move away from its dependence on food imports. Wyatt explains that the state has a national vision which is for 2030, and one of the issues is to try and make Qatar more self-sufficient, and that is definitely with food security.
At present, the small country imports over 90 percent of its food, so it’s no wonder residents have a distant relationship with its food.
Wyatt adds the government hopes to attain that vision through encouragement of “private farms to be more commercial and to employ advanced farming techniques such as hydroponics and LED lighting.”
But that vision is many years away.
In the meantime, Wahab has already begun laying the foundation by reaching out to the community in a country that may have gotten caught up in the economic boom.