Meet the social entrepreneur who deals with food wastage.
Whenever you meet someone who is involved in either a charitable cause or a social enterprise, it’s only natural to wonder where their social consciousness came from. A lot of the time, it’s due to upbringing. The values their parents imparted usually have an impact on what they do later in life.
In the case of Redza Shahid, one principle his father taught him was a key factor indirectly in leading him to co-found Grub Cycle, a social enterprise that deals with the issue of food wastage. And that value is — always stay busy.
Hailing from Johor, Redza often found himself alone on weekends while studying accounting at UiTM in Shah Alam.
“Most of my university friends were locals so on weekends I had a lot of free time on my hands,” he recalls. “My father had taught me to always be active. Once when he caught me hanging around at home, he told me to go grab a bike and cycle around the neighbourhood. He would never allow me to just lounge about.”
Of course, there’s plenty to do in the Klang Valley. He could have gone to the shopping mall, joined a sports club or visited his friends. But one characteristic of his personality steered Redza towards doing charity work.
“I don’t like doing typical things,” he admits with a smile. “It’s far more interesting to do things that are uncommon. Participating in charitable activities was something very few of my friends were into.”
Even less common was organising charity activities, which Redza decided to do. He made a pact with another friend that every weekend, each of them would get five other people to participate in charitable activities. Those activities included visiting orphanages and old folks’ homes or simply helping wherever they could.
This sparked the beginning of his interest in championing social causes. But it took a nudge from his boss to get him involved in social entrepreneurship.
The reluctant entrepreneur
After a stint in the oil and gas industry, Redza had joined an angel investment firm. His job entailed accounting and marketing work, which he was very comfortable with.
However, there was a third responsibility his boss tasked him with, which was to look into the burgeoning social enterprise scene. This was something Redza knew nothing about.
The Malaysian Global Innovation and Creativity Centre (MaGIC), the government agency tasked with promoting local start-ups, was also about to get into social enterprise around that time.
“There was one weekend when they had a three-day social enterprise event,” recalls Redza. “I figured I’d go on Friday and Saturday but would skip it on Sunday so I could play basketball with my friends. I ended up skipping basketball instead!”
One of the key performance indicators (KPIs) his boss gave him was to do a monthly presentation on the social enterprise scene in the country.
In time Redza would become fully immersed in the local social enterprise eco-system and know all the issues and key people involved. After doing this for a year, his boss suggested that he start up a social enterprise himself.
He was reluctant because he had never thought of himself as being particularly entrepreneurial. But MaGIC had just kickstarted an accelerator programme for social enterprise. So the time was ripe for him to take the leap. Still, he hesitated.
“I didn’t want to start something on my own and at the same time, I didn’t think it was a good idea to go into business with friends,” he says ruefully. “It can ruin friendships.”
One day, while attending a charity programme for refugees, he met three other individuals whom he clicked well with and they started talking about starting some venture of their own. They brainstormed for about two months before settling on an idea to pursue.
“We had four ideas and eliminated them in succession until we had just one left,” Redza recalls. “One of the ideas was about education for the less fortunate but the gestation period was too long. Another idea involved recycling but we felt it would be too hard to make it profitable. I forgot what the next idea was but food wastage was something we all agreed was worth looking into. After all, we were students once and we knew what it was like being a little cheapskate!” he adds with a grin.
They signed up for the MaGIC accelerator programme and three months later launched GrubCycle in June 2016. To gauge public reception, they conducted a survey and within three days got over 300 responses, with 80 per cent of the respondents saying that they would be willing to buy surplus food (food that’s close to its expiry date). The response was very encouraging.
There were teething problems though. To highlight the items they were selling, they went to a supermarket and took pictures of those items. By the time some people made their online orders, the products were already sold out. “We learnt very quickly that we couldn’t purchase on demand but rather, we would need to keep stock,” says Redza.
His boss then suggested that he pitch the idea to the chairman of the investment company he worked for and pursue the venture full-time. The chairman saw enough promise in the concept to give him some seed capital but it wasn’t enough. Redza then applied for every grant available.
“By the end of 2016, I had managed to secure up to a million ringgit in grants from various agencies,” he says. “The funding was important as it allowed us to proceed with our vision without having to worry too much about the financials.”
GrubCycle currently has three employees besides Redza: one in marketing, another in operations while one’s an intern. His co-founders are no longer actively involved in the project, choosing instead to focus on their day jobs.
Spreading the message
Grub Cycle consists of three core components. The first is called Grub Groceries which is basically an online grocery store for dry surplus goods sold at a fraction of their suggested retail prices. Orders can be made online or through the Grub Cycle mobile app.
The second is Grub Home Made which is the in-house brand for products made from surplus fruits and vegetables. Currently, they have pineapple jam, cabbage kimchi, apple fillings and chilli chutney for sale.
The third component is Grub Mobile, which sells fresh produce (fruits and vegetables) via trucks stationed at low income areas.
Having the different components is important in order to properly serve different demographics. For example, Grub Mobile is targeted at low income customers. “They don’t mind that the fruits and vegetables are close to their “best before” date because they plan to consume these items on the day itself,” says Redza.
“If they can pick up a pack of produce for 50 sen, it’s a great bargain for them.”
Grub Home Made seems to attract more of the idealistic urbanites who aren’t necessarily looking to buy surplus food items at dirt cheap prices but rather, want to do good by helping to reduce food wastage.
Then, there’s Grub Groceries which attracts a mix of both, meaning idealistic people who are looking to save some money. “If our message is just ‘save the environment’, people won’t buy our stuff just because of that. But if we say ‘save the environment and save money at the same time’, that works!” explains Redza.
Getting customers has not been a problem. At the time of writing, slightly over 2,000kg of food has been saved from wastage, saving customers more than RM20,000 in the process.
“In the past, people might have been afraid of buying food that’s close to expiry, but today, people are more educated about this. They understand that it’s good for at least another three months or so,” says Redza. “Furthermore, the issue of food waste is all over the Internet.”
The main challenge Grub Cycle faces is a supplier problem, many of whom aren’t prepared to sell their surplus items. Redza tells me that there are various reasons for this. In some cases, they are worried about liability in case the food is bad. Others prefer to donate these items to charity organisations like food banks. Yet others simply find it too troublesome.
Redza recalls the frustration he felt during the 2017 Kuala Lumpur SEA Games when he tried to get hotels to supply them with surplus food. “We got permission from the government to do this but the hotels didn’t want to cooperate with us,” he says. “It would be extra work for them and they threw away the food instead.”
Grub Cycle is steadily making some headway though and it recently signed up some new suppliers, including a food distributor, a French grocery store and a local supermarket. A local airline has also agreed to supply them with surplus snacks.
Redza’s medium-term goal is to establish a supermarket selling surplus food. There’s a model for this. When he visited Stanford in the US, last year he came across a supermarket called Grocery Outlet Bargain Market in nearby Palo Alto.
“It’s a cool concept. There are two prices listed for every single item. One is the current price the goods are being sold at, and the other is the “elsewhere price” so buyers can see just how much savings they can obtain,” he enthuses. “I believe such a concept would work here too. I hope to accomplish this within three years.”
His long-term goal is to scale Grub Cycle across the Asean region and find someone suitable to run his company so that he can then focus on building up other social entrepreneurs in this country. “I need to make Grub Cycle a success so that others can see that social entrepreneurship is viable,” he says, before concluding with a smile: “There are a lot of idealistic young people out there who want to do good things but like me before, they aren’t sure whether they can make it work. I’m going to prove that it can.”
The above article by Oon Yeoh first published on mysalaam.com in Jan, 2018.