Dubai: Indian expat Ayesha Khan, 45, abandoned a thriving career as a computer engineer to follow her passion. The founder of Food-ATM, an Ajman-registered entity established to provide low-cost food to blue-collar workers in the United Arab Emirates, said she had not looked back since making the decision to follow his heart’s desire.
What low cost are we talking about here?
A three or four course meal is packed for as little as Dh3! And a full-day’s supply can be had for just Dh9, according to Ayesha. It delivers packages daily to 2,600 people living in Dubai, Sharjah and Ajman. With her team of 17 staff, a generous dose of hard work, logistics and coordination, Ayesha delivers three meals a day: breakfast, lunch and dinner.
“There is food and water available 24 hours a day at our Ajman facility. You can come to our house even at 2 or 3 in the morning, you will always find food and water, ”she said. “There is no room for a ‘no’ to 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 lower cost. “Usually a worker pays 5 Dh for a big chunk of ‘roti’ (Indian bread), ‘daal’ or chicken here in the United Arab Emirates,” she said. But Ayesha’s packaged meal includes a box of biryani, a cup of sour milk, pickles, and a small cup of dessert – all for Dh3 only.
There are eight different menus prepared each day to meet the tastes of working Pakistani, Indians, Nepalese and other South Asians. “We don’t want to limit our initiative to just one nationality. My establishment is open to everyone, ”Ayesha said, adding that there is a South Indian menu specifically for Malbaris. Items include fish fry, biryani, keema, aloo mattar, boiled rice with lentil sauces and more.
“We make seven desserts over seven days. Custard, rice pudding, a sweet semolina delicacy popular in most Asian households, wheat pudding, noodles baked in powdered coconut milk and more, ”she said.
How the Food-ATM card works
Depending on the payment made for an individual, meal bills are added to the card for an entire month. “At the end of the month, the count drops to zero. Again, the first of the following month, the card is recharged, ”she explained. The card carries a number, the person’s photo and a QR code, which is scanned for the balance of the number of meals.
Individuals or companies sponsoring a worker must pay for meals in advance. The card is therefore charged with meal counts. The card also carries the consumer’s business identifier and the business name with contact details.
“The idea is to make sure a worker has food through a cashless system. Usually, these workers run out of money at the beginning of the month even when they send money to their families back home. Then, for the rest of the month, they continue to struggle to pay for their food and other daily necessities. The smart meal card ensures that their meals for the entire month are covered. The idea is to make sure that no one is hungry. She added: “Currently, the demand for meals is mostly from labor-intensive companies.”
Blue collar workers
According to Ayesha, she did her own research which revealed that 30 percent of the UAE’s population are blue collar workers. “So we would like to reach as many people as possible. Businesses can come to us and purchase meal plans for their staff and workers. It is also a good gesture on their part to take care of their employees.
Ayesha recently signed a contract with a Dubai-based school to provide Dh3 meals to her students. “More than 2,500 students will receive our Food-ATM cards with the meal count. Even for working parents, it is very convenient to feed their children meals. On the one hand, we prepare homemade dishes. In addition, children can eat fresh and hot food every day.
How it all began
Ayesha worked for a government entity in Dubai and Ajman before abandoning her for her cause. “During my professional career, I used to share my food with certain employees in my office. One day a worker came up to me and showed me a picture of his child attending school. He said that with my help he was able to save money on food and send it home for his child’s education. I felt very humble and emotional. It made me think about how superficial our lives sometimes are. We only think in material terms and work for ourselves, but how many of us go the extra mile to do something for others? “
Ayesha then began to come into contact with blue collar workers around her office and home. “Most of them said they shared food with others because restaurant food was way too expensive for them. I asked them what they would like to eat each day. Unanimously they said they wanted home style food. They missed their mother’s or their wife’s cooking and they wanted it here. So I decided to put together a menu plan that would be close to home cooking. “
So the big decision
She eventually decided to quit her job at a government entity in Dubai and pursue her dream. “It was a tough call. I was a very respected employee. I loved my job. We lived in The Greens, an upscale community in Dubai. That all changed. I also sold my house to Mumbai and brought the money to Dubai to invest in my dream project: providing low-cost, hygienic food to hungry souls. ”
At first, people thought she was crazy. “My husband has always been a great support to me. But at the time, he was wondering if I was making the right decision. The elders in my family thought I was crazy and did not think correctly. People come to the Gulf to build a house in their country of origin. And there I was selling my house in India and bringing money to the Gulf to do something for society. The initial investment to set up the facility was quite daunting. Obtaining a business license, organizing the facilities, paying staff salaries, providing them with housing all came to Dh450,000, but Ayesha has never looked back.
“The goal remains the same: to get so many sponsorships and feed so many workers at a lower cost,” she said.