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Ankit Kawatra: Hungry for change

  • Feeding India’s founder talks to Mint about eradicating hunger, joining hands with Zomato, and becoming a licensed skydiver
  • Kawatra started the non-profit in 2014 to tackle the problems of hunger, malnutrition and food waste in India

Ankit Kawatra.
Ankit Kawatra. (Jayachandran/Mint)

Dressed in a crisp white shirt, denims and black trainers, Feeding India’s founder and chairman Ankit Kawatra is in the midst of the day’s most important meeting. His laptop bag and navy blue blazer lie on a chair as he serves an afternoon meal to 60 children who are seated in the courtyard at one of the not-for-profit’s feeding centres, or “hunger spots", in old Gurugram’s Bhawani Enclave.

This feeding centre, school and shelter home, located far away from Gurugram’s high-rises, has been a Feeding India hunger spot for two years—the non-profit works to solve problems of hunger, malnutrition and food wastage in the country. Kawatra is being helped by one of the school’s staff members, the driver of one of his “Magic Wheels" vehicles, and Feeding India co-founder Srishti Jain in putting together the plates. Today, the food—rotis, dal makhni and a mixed vegetables sabzi—has been collected from corporate offices in the Aerocity area.

He insists I join in and help. For these children, some of whom come from nearby slums, this is the most wholesome meal of the day. “There’s usually a prayer before they start eating, but I guess they couldn’t wait today. So, it’s all right," adds Kawatra, as the children begin eating. “Once they are done eating, they will study. We have a morning batch as well. This is the evening batch and we try to make it for every feeding session," explains Jain.

As the children finish their meals and form a short queue to wash their hands, they wave goodbye. Jain, Kawatra and I then take an Uber to Fabindia’s Fab Cafe in Gurugram’s Sector 29 market. Once we reach, all three of us opt for some light appetizers and iced tea, from a menu featuring healthy regional cuisine.

It has been an eventful year for the 27-year-old social entrepreneur. In July, Feeding India was acquired by food delivery platform and restaurant aggregator Zomato, which funds its full-time team and core activities. But Feeding India continues to function as a non-profit.

“Zomato is providing us technology. They are really good with the food delivery and logistics side of things," says Kawatra. “We look at hunger as a logistics issue—there’s a supply side, which is the food donors, and there’s a demand side, the people who need food. Feeding India is ensuring that the supply side matches the demand side. In doing that, there is nobody better to partner with than an agency like Zomato. Their in-depth knowledge about certain things is immensely valuable to a non-profit like us."

When Feeding India started five years ago, it was just Kawatra and a few volunteers. Kawatra would pick up the food from weddings, load the containers in the back of his car and distribute it across Delhi to people in need—sometimes in the wee hours.

Today, Feeding India has 81 Magic Wheels food vans in 27 cities, including Guwahati, Kanpur, Nashik, Lucknow, Indore and Ludhiana. These vans collect food from different locations and get it to the nearest “hunger spot". “We are still a very volunteer-centric organization. They are the future of the organization. Our strength now is 22,600 in 95 cities and we have a mission to add thousands of volunteers by May 2020," he explains.

But how does one sustain a non-profit that relies on extensive logistics? “The Magic Wheels cost very little," Kawatra tells me. “With the Magic Wheels, we are able to serve a proper meal now at just 3. You can’t buy that. By next year, our goal is to bring that cost down to 1 per meal, which would be one of the lowest in the world." Nonetheless, the people who donate food also put in small amounts of money monthly to support the vans. Crowd-funding, in kind or monetary terms, plays a big role.

Recently, Feeding India also started a community-fridge scheme, known as the Happy Fridge. Currently, it has 551 fridges in 30 cities, installed near the entry or exit gates of apartment blocks and residential societies. “We are aiming to get this up to 5,000 fridges by May next year. The idea is that every colony or apartment with a high density of residents should have an existing food wastage solution," he adds. They have also tied up with airports—through travel food and retail company Travel Food Services (TFS)—to pick up excess food from airport lounges. Kawatra says the organization is working on a similar plan to connect with the railways and install community fridges at some major railway stations.

“There is a lot of food wastage at some public places—airports are one of them. Every day there’s a lot of food that is cooked and not used at airport lounges because of changes in flight schedules or cancellations. So, we tied up with TFS. Whenever they have excess food they reach out to us," he adds. “We donate around 3,000-4,000 meals a month from one airport. That’s a lot of impact with just unused food."

There’s now a robust food-quality checklist and standard operation procedure in place as well. Every food van is equipped with proper refrigeration and a hygiene and food safety kit. There are checks for odour, texture and taste. The food is also inspected for its pH value, weight, and there’s a thermometer that checks the temperature of the food when it is being donated. “That’s one of the things that’s changed a lot. We have tied up with the FSSAI (Food Safety and Standards Authority of India) and are now registered with them to be able to carry food and serve it in a safe manner. Each Magic Wheels vendor is trained to collect the food and check it," explains Kawatra, adding that they plan to integrate this system into a mobile app that will roll out this year. It will allow people to find nearby hunger spots and also record details about the condition of the donated food. “We will be able to know what kind of food it is, when it was cooked and the kind of shelf life it could have."

To tackle other issues, like the use of single-use plastic, the non-profit has partnered with Tupperware for reusable containers that keep the food fresh and safe even in transit. “These containers are BPA (Bisphenol A, an industrial chemical used in the manufacture of certain hard plastics) free and the temperatures at which they can carry food is pretty wide. They can carry hot and cold food for a long period of time," he adds.

The wedding season has been pivotal for Feeding India and Kawatra. Not only because of the volume of work that it generates, but also because it was during this season in 2014 that Kawatra came up with the idea for the non-profit. “It’s a big motivation because that’s how all this started. In Delhi, there are 70,000 weddings on that one auspicious date. We are prepping for the upcoming season from October-February. We are asking brides, grooms to sign up now. We are expecting to collect food from around 20,000 weddings this season for sure," he adds.

While the global movement on eradicating hunger is moving at a steady pace, the situation has not improved in India. In 2016, India was ranked 80 out of 104 countries in the Global Hunger Index (GHI) 2015, with a score of 29 points. The GHI measures hunger on a global, national and regional level. Scores are calculated on a 100-point scale where 0 signifies zero hunger and 100 is the worst score. According to the latest index—GHI 2018—India’s ranking has fallen to 103 out of 119 countries. The country’s score is now at 31.1, in the “serious" category.

“We have dropped down—globally, we are doing worse. The number of hungry people in India is now around 195.9 million people, which is a basic indicator that the under-nutrition problem still hasn’t been solved," Kawatra says. “We (India) represent a quarter of the world’s hungry population. The big battle for India has been to provide food and nutrition to women in the early days of pregnancy and the first three years of a child’s growth. We still haven’t been able to get past that."

On the personal front, Kawatra, who describes himself as an “outdoorsy" person, makes time for sports. A partial tear in the anterior crucial ligament in 2014, and a subsequent surgery to fix it, hasn’t hindered his passion for football. Kawatra still plays whenever he can. He is also in the process of becoming a licensed skydiver. “One of my goals is to become a licensed skydiver. You have to do 100 jumps, which is insane.... You need a licence just to jump alone. If you want to jump with someone, you need to complete more jumps. That’s one thing I am really pursuing," he adds. Cooking lessons are also part of his routine now.

He enjoys travelling too. Kawatra visited almost 25 countries in 2018 alone. But a particular visit to the UK two years ago was probably the most memorable, for that is when he was recognized as one of the Queen’s Young Leaders for 2017. “The big one was just meeting the queen of England. There were around 60 of us from all the Commonwealth countries who were awarded (in June 2017). It was humbling to know that there are people recognizing our efforts. I was just proud to be an Indian that day and to put India on that list," he adds.

Feeding India subsequently got support from the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust. Similar recognition followed from the UN. He was also named in the Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia: Social Entrepreneurs list for 2017. But Kawatra, who left a corporate job in 2014 to start Feeding India, remains grounded. “Every time I win an award, I realize I am getting closer to my mission (of eradicating hunger) but only in terms of service to it. You celebrate for a day, but then you get back to work."

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