When India went into lockdown in March 2020, over a billion worried people confined themselves to their homes. Ankit Kawatra and his team, however, did the exact opposite.
Instead, they stepped up to help marginalized communities and solve a pressing problem: People needed food, and they needed it urgently.
In India, many people get paid by the day and are known as “daily wagers.”
So when the nation-wide lockdown brought most economic activity to a grinding halt, millions of daily wagers were forced out of work with no social net to help them survive.
Zomato Feeding India quickly saw the immensity of the challenge and started the Feed the Daily Wager campaign. It distributed meal kits – made up of essentials like rice, flour, pulses, spices, and oil – so that families could cook for themselves in the safety of their homes.
Over a period of 130 days, the campaign delivered nearly 750,000 meal kits, or the equivalent of 78.5 million meals, across 181 cities.
This wasn’t first time Kawatra has fought against the scourge of hunger.
“In India, you can’t get anywhere without seeing people who are in need of food,” says Kawatra, who founded Zomato Feeding India, a non-profit whose mission is as succinct as it is seemingly impossible: make India hunger-free.
India ranks 94 in a list of 107 countries on the 2020 Global Hunger Index. With a score of 27.2, India has a level of hunger that the Index certifies as serious. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations estimates 189.2 million people, or 14% of the population, are undernourished.
Kawatra launched his mission, Feeding India, in 2014 after he attended a wedding and saw how excess food from that evening, which could have fed at least a thousand people, was being thrown away.
Indian weddings tend to be elaborate affairs with the smallest of them hosting up to a few hundred guests. The guest lists at larger weddings can run up to a few thousand.
“Because we don’t have an RSVP culture and the big weddings usually have multi-cuisine buffets, the amount of food thrown away at the end of the evening is mind-boggling,” he says.
This was a life altering moment for Kawatra. Why couldn’t unwanted food from weddings and other events be distributed to those in need, he asked.
For him, it was a no-brainer, and he was astounded when he found out that most caterers were dead against it.
“I may have called a few hundred caterers, and not a single one wanted to give away the excess food that they were planning to throw away,” he recalls.
Undeterred, he kept making repeated requests and eventually one reluctantly agreed. After that, it was like watching dominos fall.
Over time, Kawatra cast a wider net and began sourcing excess food from canteens of large corporations and airport lounges as well as freshly prepared food from partner restaurants.
In 2018, Kawatra merged Feeding India with Zomato, one of the world’s largest food aggregators, to accelerate his vision of eliminating hunger. By 2019, Zomato Feeding India was operating in more than 100 cities with over 26,000 volunteers, or ‘Hunger Heroes,’ working at the local level.
But things changed when COVID-19 swept across India. The usual sources of donated food suddenly dried up when offices were shut, and events and weddings were canceled or postponed. The possibility of contracting the virus also prevented volunteers from going into people’s homes to distribute cooked meals.
The growing pandemic and the soaring numbers of unemployed daily wagers meant Kawatra and his team had to rethink their strategy fast. They came up with the idea of distributing meal kits that could support a family for a couple of weeks.
“We’ve gone through a sharp learning curve during this past year, and it’s all been possible because of the strong team stepping up to pull things together during the crisis. We’ve had to reorganize the food supply and delivery system in as short a span as three weeks,” he says. “We expanded our network to cover more cities than we were covering earlier, figured out logistics, and organized manufacturers and suppliers in ways that they weren’t used to.”
Now he is asking himself where Zomato Feeding India would be in the next 10 years.
Helping him plot the roadmap to ending hunger in India is his trustworthy Microsoft Surface laptop.
“I switched to Surface in 2016 and have been using it to do everything—from storyboarding to brainstorming—and using the touchscreen feature to jot down ideas soon as they come to me,” Kawatra says.
“It’s light, so I carry my Surface to every discussion, use it to present my ideas; it’s with me all the time.”
The pandemic also changed the way Kawatra and his team interact and plan their days. Virtual meetings became common, and recently began using Microsoft Teams to collaborate and communicate within the organization.
“Digital has always been the focus of our operations. Our volunteer system runs on digital platforms. Technology is a big lever that’s still under-explored. Digital has never been an either-or option for us.”
Kawatra sees his mission in the same way as an entrepreneur sees their startup and looks at it as a problem to solve.
“Good intent isn’t always enough. It must be coupled with problem-solving abilities,” he says.
Abhishek Mande Bhot is an independent writer and editor covering news, lifestyle, and luxury for publications in India and the US.