Malaysia’s edible food waste amounts to 3,000 tonnes. Grub Cycle, a social enterprise, is dedicated to reducing this waste in the country.
by Portia Ladrido
From 1998 to 2004, Malaysia’s iconic Petronas Towers were the tallest skyscrapers in the world, with 88 storeys and all of its 1, 483 lofty feet bestriding the country’s capital, Kuala Lumpur. In a report by Channel News Asia, filling the colossal towers to the brim with food is approximately equivalent to the amount of food waste that is generated by Malaysians in just 18 days.
“According to statistics, we can feed 2.2 million people with three meals a day from the food waste that we are generating,” says Redza Shahid, co-founder of Grub Cycle.
This alarming knowledge was one of the factors that urged Redza to start Grub Cycle, a social enterprise dedicated to reducing the amount of waste in his country whilst also ensuring that people from low-income households have enough on their plates. According to SWCorp Malaysia, a government agency that does research and analysis on solid waste, of the 38,000 tonnes generated daily, 15,000 tonnes are food waste and 3,000 of this food waste are still edible.
What Grub Cycle does is fourfold: Grub Groceries, Grub Bites, Grub Homemade, and Grub Bag. All these aim to address either starvation or food wastage. “We started with grocery products. They’re almost expired within one to three months […] What we do is we work with supermarkets, and we buy their surplus food cheaper from them,” he explains of the first pillar, Grub Groceries.
“We then sell it to the public at below market price, which is usually around 20% below market price. In Malaysia, most supermarkets have daily items that are rejected.”
With Grub Bites, pastry shops can sign up using Grub Cycle’s mobile app, upload their surplus food, and customers can come in and purchase this surplus food for cheap. “We first saw this model working in Europe. In the US, they call it Feeding Forward, and in Europe, it’s called Too Good To Go,” he adds.
The third facet of the business model is Grub Homemade, where the company’s chef helps them expand the lifespan of the food by turning vegetables and fruits into jams, pickles, and even kimchi.
The final program is Grub Bag. The enterprise’s sole thrust initially revolved around helping low-income communities. However, the organisation quickly realised that their model cannot be sustainable if they only give back to the communities without proper mechanisms in place to sustain the business.
“With the previous three pillars, what we do is 10% of the profit is helping low-income families. The price of the bag is 30 Ringgit (5.34 GBP) and this includes rice, cooking oil, sugar, salt, and eggs. We only get the families to pay 15 Ringgit (2.67 GBP),” Redza explains.
The enterprise officially started in June 2016, and since then, they have roughly saved 1.3 tonnes of food from being thrown away. On top of this, Grub Cycle has also continuously helped 36 low-income families on a monthly basis. They have also recently partnered with this year’s Southeast Asia Games (SEA Games) in Colombo. All surplus food from hotels hosting athletes will be given to Grub cycle. The team will then re-engineer the food and distribute to low-income families for free.
Whilst their model has rapidly attracted investors and grant-giving bodies, Redza’s frustration comes from social enterprises being a novelty in the country. Since it’s a fairly new concept in Malaysia, most people have a hard time understanding and classifying what a social enterprise is or is not.
“This thing is new in Malaysia and they still can’t grasp the idea. Most of the people are saying, ‘Hey you’re an NGO or a charity!’, and we’re not. There are also more people who haven’t heard of social enterprises and when we talk about it, they’d be like ‘Wow, this is good.’ But in terms of people who are already involved with an NGO, half of them would be like, ‘Why are you selling to low-income families? Why aren’t you giving it for free?'”
As evidenced by reports, Malaysia’s waste problem is not one to be ignored, and so far, the only ones who have addressed this concern are foundations and nonprofits, such as the Food Aid Foundation, who re-engineer and redistribute food that would otherwise be thrown away.
Besides being the first social enterprise that addresses food wastage in Malaysia, what Grub Cycle uniquely offers is a response to this specific social concern whilst also enabling self-sustainability.
“I believe that there’s a lot of great social enterprises out there or social causes out there, and we should try to do as many social enterprises as we can […] My goal is to build the social enterprise ecosystem in Malaysia. That’s something that I’m really passionate about, so now I’m really building the company to ensure that it can be sustainable and it can be run by anyone on a normal basis.”
It’s a bigger risk but it also gives the satisfaction that even a small step can make a big change.
At the heart of every social enterprise is its mission to do social good. Redza easily answers that his satisfaction level is at its highest when he gets to interact with the families that they help with Grub Bag. Once a month, he would spend at least 30 minutes to an hour with one of their beneficiaries – a family where the husband and wife are partially and fully blind, respectively.
“Whenever I give them rice, cooking oil, etc., I spend time with them and you can see how they appreciate life in a different way than us,” he fondly remembers.
“We keep on saying that we never have enough of food, we never have enough of fun, or we never have enough of everything, but for them, a small contribution is already enough. Looking at them so happy really motivates me to push things further because if not, who’s going to help them? It’s a bigger risk but it also gives the satisfaction that even a small step can make a big change.”
Portia Ladrido is a multimedia journalist specialising in social justice, culture, and the arts. She is a human rights journalism fellow at the Philippine Human Rights Information Center and the Metro Manila hub coordinator of the Solutions Journalism Network. She currently writes speeches for the Philippines’ first female socialist senator. Previously, she worked as an editor and writer at CNN Philippines.