The Robin Hood Army: Fighting Hunger and Wastage

By Aghna Javed
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This August, FUCHSIA brings to you the inspiring story of an Indian boy and a Pakistani girl who went to college together in London, one that proves love knows no boundaries, and tender hearts beat on both sides of the border; that genuine desire and passion prevails amongst those in both nations.

Wait … before you let your imagination run down the Veer-Zara track, let me warn you this is not a romance love story; rather, it is the story of a greater love for humanity. The desire and passion mentioned above are for to make a difference to society at large. This is the story of the Robin Hood Army (RHA).

RHA was founded by Neel Ghouse (the Indian boy) on 17 August 2014 in Delhi, with a concept rather novel and befitting to this part of the world. Its Pakistani chapter was later launched in Karachi by Sarah (the Pakistani girl), Neel’s good friend from college, and her husband Sarfaraz. The motto, “Feed the less privileged/hungry and curb food wastage” addresses two issues which are rampant in both India and Pakistan. RHA does this by procuring surplus leftover food from restaurants, packing it and distribute it to those who need it.

FUCHSIA had the privilege to speak to both Neel and Sarah, to better understand this noble cause. In this Independence issue, we share with you how their joint effort across borders has helped RHA made outstanding progress. Join us in celebrating the very first anniversary of RHA.

FUCHSIA: Where did the idea of re-allocation of food come from?

Neel: Frankly speaking, it is not my brain child. After finishing my studies in London I moved to Portugal and worked for Zomato, an online restaurant discovery platform based out of India, operating in over 20 countries. Through my work I met the founder of NGO ReFood, which did re-allocation of food When Zomato relocated me to Delhi, it hit me that India direly needs this.

FUCHSIA: Why the name Robin Hood Army (RHA)?

Neel: Unlike the mythical hero, we don’t really steal from the rich – but our aspiration is to create impact and in the process inspire the community around us to give back to those who need it most. We strongly believe our responsibility as the youth of our country lies beyond getting cushy jobs, and we are trying to leverage our learnings to give back to society.

FUCHSIA: Tell us about the early days of RHA.

Neel: Anand (co-founder of RHA) and I started off with a few of our close friends. Every weekend we would pick a neighborhood, scour the eateries there and ask for leftover surplus food. We explained our intention of taking it to feed the needy, and they were more than willing to help. Mind you, this was not scraps leftover off people’s plates; it was excess food left in a restaurant’s buffet or kitchen from the day’s cooking – perfectly clean and consumable but trashed as it has no shelf life. Our first few drives were more of a feel-good exercise where we fed 100-150 people each week.

FUCHSIA: So how did you go about expanding?

Neel: If we really had to make an impact, we had to go viral, spread the word and arouse people’s interest. And thereon procure more soldiers. Sharing pictures on social media like Facebook and Twitter proved to be a game-changer for us. There was a surge of requests; more restaurants and volunteers wanted to come on board. Several cities across India launched their own chapters. In Bangalore, there aren’t as many homeless as Delhi, so we reached out to other NGOs and homes to which we could supply the food. Anand and I tapped into Zomato’s database to bring more restaurants onto our panel of contributors. Today RHA works across 15 cities in India and Pakistan with about 600 volunteers feeding 4000 to 5000 people weekly. These numbers are a drop in the ocean, but we have faith.

RHA Volunteers Mumbai

RHA Volunteers Delhi

RHA Volunteers Bangalore

RHA Volunteers Karachi

FUCHSIA: How did RHA arrive in Pakistan?

Sarah: When the unfortunate Peshawar attacks took place earlier this year, Neel called me to offer his condolences. It was a tough time for Pakistan and it is heartening when friends reach out and share your pain and sorrow. He told me about the progress he had made with RHA and asked if I would be interested to initiate it in Pakistan. Of course I said yes. I discussed it with my husband, Sarfaraz, and we decided it would be iconic if we coincide the launch date of RHA Karachi with the Cricket World Cup’s India-Pakistan match on 15 Feb 2015. And so we did!

Source: facebook.com/robinhoodarmy

FUCHSIA: How has it been received in Karachi?

Sarah: Oh, very well. Our first drive was just a handful of people: Sarfaraz, four close friends, and I. But then it spread through word of mouth and our social media posts. We first leveraged on Facebook pages like SWOT and Karachi Food Diaries, and then created our own. More people came on board. I work for IFC, Sarfaraz works for a private equity firm and most of our volunteers are students or young professionals with busy work-weeks. Hence, it is every Sunday that we are able to get out for our weekly distribution drive. But the response is so good that we often get calls during the week from our restaurant partners to collect food. Restaurants have been amazingly generous, I tell you. The initial few partnerships had been sought out by us; now most on our panel got in touch with us to participate in our weekly contribution. To name a few, we have Nando’s, White Biryani, Lal’s, Ghaffar Kebab House, Espresso, Karachi Broast, Dunkin Donuts, Pie in the Sky, Zahid Nihari etc, and then there are some who wish to remain anonymous.

FUCHSIA: So what are the logistics involved on a typical distribution day?

Sarah: It involves a lot of planning a week prior to D-Day, and massive coordination on our Whatsapp group. Some volunteers assume the role of scouting; their job is to identify a location for the next week’s distribution. In our initial drives, we reached out to the homeless on the streets, but soon realized they were mostly occupational beggars and not really our target audience. Plus, scaling the streets was time-consuming and often there weren’t enough people to feed. Now, we target clusters of people; so we go to kachchi abaadis (squatter colonies), old homes, orphanages, construction sites, Karachi Cantt Station (where the coolies or porters spend sorry days toiling with passengers’ luggage and hungry nights sleeping under the open skies) and even hospitals. We discovered that a lot of patients at government hospitals are from the interior province, in the city for treatment. Accompanying relatives camp outside the hospital and survive on bare minimum, hence, they too, are a niche for us to cater to. Once the location is decided a week in advance, we assign volunteers to collect food from different places either on Saturday nights or Sunday mornings. We then meet at a common point and proceed to the distribution site.

RHA Team  Karachi

FUCHSIA: Would you share some special moments from the drives?

Sarah: Oh yes, every single drive in itself is a humbling experience. Then, there are those little gestures we get to see that simply melt our hearts. For example, on one drive Karachi Cantt, a very old man waited in line for over forty minutes to receive his packed food, but gave it away in a second when he saw another fellow coolie empty-handed

Neel: In Delhi, there are a few volunteers (young lawyers) who frequent an orphanage for distribution. They also often converse with the kids there and motivate them to pursue studies, to read and learn – messages that go a long way, beyond just a meal. Now, at least ten kids in that orphanage are aspiring to become lawyers. It is heartening to see children on the streets and how they always look out after their younger siblings, almost always feeding their younger siblings first, and only later, eating what is leftover. On the other hand, restaurants have been exceptional too. Some even cook a separate batch of fresh food for distribution when they have no surplus leftover to contribute.

FUCHSIA: What is the way forward for RHA?

Neel: I see the future of RHA with students. Students have greater drive, energy and more time than working professionals. To penetrate far and wide, our volunteer base needs to expand through targeted crowd-sourcing, and for this, we need to rope in students. Keeping this in mind, we are launching an online kit, with which anyone can launch an RHA chapter. RHA operates in a decentralized hyper-local model where each city coordinates and executes its own weekly drives. We do communicate with each other to share best practices, but mostly work within our own city teams. Hence, it is an easily-replicable model; I see every college having its own chapter without us having to explain it to them. This online kit which we intend to launch on 14 August 2015 will have all the necessary guidelines. Other than this, we will use more press, radio and viral videos to promote our page. The decision to consolidate all cities into single Facebook and Twitter accounts was to avoid over-cluttering and dilution of impact. We need to keep the audience engaged, and keep news flowing throughout the week. It has been a year, and we are growing in number with each passing day, hoping to continue doing so as we go on.

It is admirable how these two young people from India and Pakistan took on this responsibility of killing 2 birds with 1 stone. We have examples in nature like osmosis and air-pressure differences, where supply flows from where it is in abundance to where it is scarce. The RHA is doing exactly that. And in doing so, it is mitigating both food wastage and hunger. It is commendable how they have worked out a replicable hyper-local model where each chapter runs on its own, but with seamless coordination. Every week they pool in all their learnings, results, picture stories etc. from the week’s drive into one central database, from where volunteers dispatch news on social media and other platforms.

As they celebrate their first anniversary this August, FUCHSIA wishes them many more to come. We hope they grow by leaps and bounds, and their mission becomes so widespread in the near future, that it influences not just community-level but also national-level agenda.

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About Aghna Javed

Aghna Javed is a proud product of a simple gadget-free bachpan, mum's food, places she travelled to, the three boys in her life (yes, counting her hubby in too), books she has read, and everything else that life throws at her. Previously having worked at P&G, she is now a budding entrepreneur bringing interactive marketing campaigns to life in Singapore. Amongst her many aspirations in life, Aghna indulges in her childhood hobby of writing through FUCHSIA, volunteers with Singapore Red Cross, and simultaneously works on improving her Mandarin-speaking skills. Read more about Aghna in contributing writers.