Indian expatriate Ayesha Khan, 45, quit a thriving career as a computer engineer to follow her passion. The founder of Food-ATM, a registered entity in Ajman set up to provide low-cost food to blue collar workers in UAE, said there has been no looking back since she made the decision to follow her heart’s desire.
How low cost are we talking here?
A three or four-course meal comes packed for as low as Dh3! And an entire day’s supply can be had for just Dh9, according to Ayesha. She delivers the parcels every day to 2,600 people living in Dubai, Sharjah and Ajman. With her team of 17 staff members, a generous dood ollop of hard work, logistics and co-ordination, Ayesha delivers three meals a day — breakfast lunch and dinner.
“There is food and water available 24 hours at our facility in Ajman. You can come to us even at 2 or 3 in the morning, you will still find food and water,” she said. “There is no room for a ‘no’ at our little mess in Ajman.”
What is Food-ATM?
Launched in March 2019, Food-ATM is a project initiated by Ayesha to feed hungry blue collar workers at a low cost. “Typically, a worker pays Dh5 for a thick piece of ‘roti’ (Indian bread), ‘daal’ or chicken here in the UAE,” she said. But Ayesha’s packed meal comprises a box of biryani, a cup of curds, some pickles and a small cup of dessert — all for Dh3 only.
There are eight different menus prepared every day to cater to the taste of Pakistani, Indian, Nepali and other South Asian workers. “We do not want to limit our initiative to any one nationality. My facility is open for all,” said Ayesha, adding that there is a South Indian menu specifically for Malbaris. Items include fish fry, biryani, keema, aloo mattar, boiled rice with lentil gravies and more.
“We prepare seven desserts for seven days. Custard, rice pudding, a sweet semolina delicacy popular in most Asian households, wheat pudding, cooked noodles in coconut powder milk and more,” she said.
How does the Food-ATM card work
Depending upon the payment made for an individual, the meal counts are added to the card for a whole month. “At the end of the month, the count comes down to zero. Again, on the first of the next month, the card is re-loaded,” she explained. The card has a number, the individual’s photo and a QR code on it, which is scanned for meal count balance.
Individuals or companies sponsoring a worker have to pay for the meals in advance. The card is accordingly loaded with meal counts. The card also carries the consumer’s company ID and the company name with contact details.
“The idea is to ensure that a worker has food through a cashless system. Usually, these workers run out of money at the beginning of the month itself as they send money to their families back home. Then, for the rest of the month, they keep struggling to pay for their food and other daily necessities. The smart meal card ensures their meals for the entire month are taken care of. The idea is to ensure that no one goes hungry.” She added: “Currently, the demand for meals is mostly coming from labour-intensive companies.”
Blue collar workers
According to Ayesha, she did her own research that revealed that 30 per cent of the population in UAE comprises blue collar workers. “So we would like to reach out to as many people as we can. Companies can come to us and buy meal plans for their staff and workers. It is a good gesture on their part too to take care of their employees.”
Ayesha recently signed a contract with a Dubai-based school to provide Dh3 meals for its students. “More than 2,500 students will be given our Food-ATM cards with meal counts. Even for working parents, it is very convenient to have meals given to their children. For one, we prepare home-style food. Plus, children get to eat fresh, hot food every day.”
How it all started
Ayesha used to work for a government entity in Dubai and Ajman before giving it up for her cause. “During my career as a professional, I used to share my food with some workers in my office. One day, a worker came up to me and showed me a picture of his child attending school. He said that thanks to my help, he was able to save money on food and send it home for his child’s education. I felt very humbled and emotional. That set me thinking about how shallow our lives are sometimes. We only think along material terms and work for ourselves, but how many of us make that extra effort to do something for others?”
Ayesha then started getting in touch with blue collar workers around her office and home. “Most of them said they shared food with others as food from the restaurants was way too expensive for them to afford. I asked them what would they like to eat every day. Unanimously, they said they wanted home-style food. They missed their mother or wife’s cooking and they craved for it here. So, I decided to put a menu plan in place that would be close to home-cooked food.”
Then the big decision
She finally decided to quit her job with a Dubai government entity and follow her dream. “It was a tough call. I was a well-respected employee. I loved my job. We lived in The Greens, an upscale community in Dubai. All that changed. I also sold my house in Mumbai and brought the money to Dubai in order to invest in my dream project: Providing low-cost, hygienic food to some hungry souls.”
Initially, people thought she was crazy. “My husband has always been a big support for me. But back then, he did have concerns about whether I was taking the right decision. The elders in my family thought I was crazy and was not thinking straight. People come to the Gulf to build a house in their home country. And here I was, selling off my house back in India and bringing the money to the Gulf to do something for the society.” The initial investment to set up the establishment was quite daunting. Getting a commercial licence, arranging the facilities, paying salaries to the staff, providing them with accommodation amounted to a whopping Dh450,000, but Ayesha never looked back.
“The goal remains the same: To get as many sponsorships and feed as many workers at a low cost as possible,” she said.