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Mission: Hunger — Joining forces to end Malaysia's hunger issue

"My dad was in the army. So I anak askar (soldier's daughter). For us, everything's mission-oriented. If there's a problem, go out there and settle it. That's why I do what I do today — I handle missions!" begins Nik Adina Taty Nik Zainin, co-founder and advisor for Zer0Hunger, a platform created to systematically address the issue of hunger in Malaysia. The organisation is also part of the MATCH hub, a public and private sector mechanism, leading the food security cluster.

Expression discernibly bemused, she continues: "I don't have time to preach or be a tree-hugger. If there's a problem on the ground, just deploy me. Macam askar lah kan (just like a soldier, right)!" Suffice it to say, the bubbly 50-year-old is definitely on a mission — even as we speak.

As part of the founding member of Zer0Hunger, Nik Adina is trying to raise awareness on the organisation and make us understand how the platform can help towards tackling the issue of hunger in the country.

In 2019, World Bank projects Malaysia Hunger statistics as being 2.5 per cent of the population (938, 000 people). Meanwhile in 2020, with the new poverty line being adjusted, the number is at 5.6 per cent of the population under poverty (1.83 mil people). With Covid-19, the impact is compounded and will impact the five million Malaysians identified as vulnerable.

How did this all start for you, I ask the KL-lite as she makes herself comfortable on her bed. Of course, due to the MCO, we're speaking to each other from the comfort of our rooms via Zoom.

"I had a call from a friend and I remember the first thing he said was, 'hey, we've got to do something about hungry people!' My initial response was, 'you do lah!' I mean, I had no feelings about it," recalls Nik Adina, her hearty chuckles slicing through the screen.

But, she confides, being a mission-oriented person, her interest was piqued. "So, five minutes later I called him back and told him to count me in." More people were assembled and the group found themselves formulating their plans together over Zoom every single night for two months.

"Some of the people we knew from school; some we'd never met. Some were tree huggers and others, real tech people," remembers Nik Adina, adding that it was only two months later that they were finally able to meet each other.

Of the many who'd come on-board during the initial stages, there are only four of them left today. Driving the mission and forming the backbone of Zer0Hunger are chairman Farizul Baharom, director Sharizal Shaarani, sustainability advocate Romil Shamsudin and Nik Adina herself.

"I wasn't keen at the beginning to be honest," confides Nik Adina, who has a background in Industrial Psychology from Western Michigan University, US. "It was still at the concept stage — coming up with policies, a proper system, etc. So I wasn't really feeling it. In order to 'feel', I really had to go down to the ground."

So she did. She looked at the different communities and spoke to people to get a better idea of their problems and the needs of the different niche groups. "What really took off was our community side of helping," she recalls, adding that as they became more involved, they received an invitation from the Red Crescent to join the MATCH programme where they were put in charge of food security and basic needs.

From there, they found themselves even more deeply involved and eventually groups were engaged. Says Nik Adina: "For the purpose of data collection, it was important for us to know who the affected people were. The first partnership we forged was with the Armed Forces Veterans Association. Anak askar kan (a soldier's daughter, right)!"

The organisation carried out their first collection and undertook a more thorough study of those who were truly struggling. She recalls: "After that, we realised we also needed to do food sustainability. And that was when it hit that we had to turn our focus to urban farming."

It so happened that Nik Adina sat on the bureau of education, another NGO, with one Rashdan Rashid, who'd later join forces with Zer0Hunger to share his expertise in this area.

CREATING A SYSTEM

When the group first started Zer0Hunger, the initial mission was to create a systematic platform, namely a more systematic way of distributing food. "We didn't want overlaps," explains Nik Adina, adding that they were striving for transparency too.

Continuing, she elaborates: "Most of the help given at that time was also political. They chose based on who voted for them etc. We wanted to ensure that when you help, you help all. And having this system also provides dignity for them."

The platform itself, adds Nik Adina, is their technology start-up. "But the giving part… I don't know whether we can be a yayasan (foundation) later or just remain a social enterprise. I mean, that's our charity part. We could keep on running programmes and initiatives."

Continuing, she adds: "Like when people want to do urban farming. For example, corporates. We can be the turn-key to get you the land under the scheme that Rashdan, our urban farming advisor, is working on. We can help you design your farm or work together with you so you can design your farm. So it can become a voluntary programme."

The other can be employee engagement, offers Nik Adina. "Say you want your people to be involved in helping out with soup kitchens. We have a centre called Pentas. This is our hub where people can come and cook, and some can help pack the food, while those with green thumbs can help do some harvesting for us."

It's also here at Pentas that unwanted clothes are sent and subsequently sorted into collections, which would later be given out to those in need. Shares Nik Adina: "The good ones we actually re-iron and hang for people to take. The not-so-good stuff we put in a bin for Kloth (fabric recycling movement) to take away and re-use."

THREE-IN-ONE CONCEPT

Asked whether there are similar organisations like Zer0Hunger in Malaysia, Nik Adina shakes her head. She believes that they're slightly different. "The popular ones with a system are doing food rescue. Like food banks and having stuff at petrol stations and so on," she muses, adding: "We wanted a three-in-one concept, which I can safely say, no one has. We have the soup kitchen, food bank, and what I call the 'salvation army'."

Noting my confusion, she attempts to explain: "I don't know what to call it. It's like you collect stuff and give them out to people, or you sell back to people at a cheaper price. It's not bundle. I think we've definitely found a niche. To say that we created something new, we didn't. To say that we've improvised, innovated based on people and our own experiences, yes! We do fine tune."

Elaborating, Nik Adina points out that had they opted to merely focus on the issue of hunger, it wouldn't have worked. "As a CSR, hunger isn't popular. Poverty, yes, not hunger. Or rather hunger is never the main item. It tends to fall under the umbrella of poverty. So we decided to focus on it instead."

Because hunger, she points out, if you look at the bigger picture, is also about nutrition. "And we haven't even done that," she exclaims, adding: "That's why urban farming is there. Sustainable feeding for yourself. How do you rise from hungry to eventually becoming a food provider?"

The issue of food security in the country is becoming alarming on two fronts, believes Nik Adina. One is immediate hunger as a result of the pandemic where people are losing their jobs and finding themselves unable to even put food on the table.

The other is about nutrition. "For example, as much as I'm already feeding, say, a family in Sabah, how much nutrition am I really giving them? I donate rice but what are they eating it with? Water? I don't think we're helping to the best of our ability."

And that's why the organisation aspires to have a really healthy food bank with a proper system in place. "One thing happens after another," muses Nik Adina, adding: "After this Covid thing, we know the flood is coming. But with the data that we have, we can plan for it. There doesn't have to be that drama narrative already."

Continuing, she reiterates: "We can say, 'hey guys, flood season's coming and anyone wanting to donate their perishables etc. within a two months' expiry date can just hand over to us and maybe we can already start sending to the centres.' BEFORE the flood occurs!"

UP FOR A CAUSE

As the minutes tick and I realise that my next Zoom appointment – incidentally with Rashdan Rashid, the man responsible for lending his expertise on urban farming to Zer0Hunger — looms near, I ask Nik Adina whether zero hunger is achievable.

She smiles and I can imagine her mind working as she reflects the question. Finally, she replies: "Maybe not. But we do aim to make people 'unhungry'! Our mission is at number 2 on the Sustainable Development Goals list (a blueprint to achieve a more sustainable future for all established by the UN's General Assembly). That's the space we want to work on and of course, we want to look at the rest that falls under this too."

Have you always been a "cause" person, I couldn't help blurting as I start to gather my things together in preparation for my next "appointment".

Again, that hearty chuckle from Nik Adina, before she replies: "I'd say so! Even when I was a teenager, I'd start little initiatives with the neighbourhood kids. I remember we collected clothes that people no longer wanted. All the neighbours would come and pass their clothes and we'd sort them out before giving them away. I think that's the first thing I ever did as a group of this kind of thing."

Rashdan Rashid, Urban Farming Director, from KL.

"The issue of zero hunger is very important. Now we've been hit by the pandemic, no need to say B40 or M40 or whatever, everyone's affected. And do you know that all this while, we've been trying our best to get everyone to be a part of this urban farming initiative?" exclaims Rashdan Rashid, the man responsible for helping Zer0Hunger with the urban farming component of their mission.

The affable 42-year-old, who's also involved with Persatuan Lestari Alam Malaysia, which provides a platform for NGOs and NGIs to engage all layers of community with Sustainable Development Goals in mind, and also the Persatuan Kebajikan Golongan Asnaf dan Gelandangan Kuala Lumpur dan Selangor (a welfare association for the poor and homeless), is keen to share just why urban farming is so important in the whole of scheme of things.

But first, how did he get involved with Zer0Hunger?

"I came on board because I could see how good they are with planning community projects," recalls the father of seven, adding: "They needed someone to advocate on their behalf. For example, how government agencies can leverage from whatever initiatives they're running. My focus has always been on the UN General Assembly's Sustainable Development Goals. And as you know, zero hunger is at number two on the list."

The point is not only to feed people; it's also to feed them quality food, emphasises Rashdan passionately. "We want to have a quality future generation. That's why for the last six years after my appointment as the chairman of Urban Farming Kuala Lumpur, I've been able to see to it that we now have 96 kebun (farms) registered under DBKL and Federal Territories Ministry. We've been busy promoting, educating and doing public awareness exercises, in addition to providing support in terms of social enterprise initiatives etc."

Returning to the question of how serious the issue of food security is, Rashdan points to a report that had been published which stated that children of low cost housing are unable to grow naturally and healthily due to lack of nutrition.

"Those living in the PPRs (Program Perumahan Rakyat or Low Income Housing Programme) lack knowledge on the importance of nutrition and the effects on the children's growth and development," says the urban farming director.

Rashdan also runs a project at Anjung Kelana, a pilot project initiated by Federal Territories Ministry and managed by DBKL, which aims to transform the lives of those who've been rescued from the streets, located in Taman Danau Desa, Kuala Lumpur. There are 15 hardcore homeless currently being trained by Lestari Alam at Anjung Kelana.

"We don't want them to plant just anything," continues Rashdan, elaborating: "Say we tell them to go ahead and plant, but they don't know how to manage the farm. They won't be able to sustain it because they don't have the skills of a farmer or grower. So what we do is we design a simple project and product so that they can survive. Hence no more hunger!"

What do you advise them to plant, I couldn't help asking. Smiling, Rashdan explains: "Basic plants and vegetables like kangkong (water spinach), sawi (mustard greens) and other types of spinach. The idea is for the younger kids to eat the spinach; the youths will eat the kangkong, and the older folks, the sawi. These are the three main vegetables I've advised the mayor we should focus on and simplify for them so they can also generate some income from what they plant."

PLAN IN MOTION

Along the way, he shares there are plans to encourage them to plant roselle and later, pegaga (Asiatic pennywort commonly used as a culinary vegetable and as a medicinal herb) so they can have their own products.

Elaborates Rashdan: "We have short term, mid-term and long term plans. Maybe, for the final one, we'd get them to plant fruit trees like mangoes and rambutans so everyone can eat too," adds Rashdan, before sharing that they have, at their disposal, land from DBKL, the religious department, JAWI and even under TNB pylons.

"My association, Lestari Alam, has been given the mandate to help develop community farms," he continues, adding: "In fact, moving forward, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government will be launching a policy called Dasar Kebun Komuniti Bandar (Urban Community Farming Policy) on August 3."

He continues that they'd provide empowerment training too. "We need to have a social enterprise so that they'll be able to sustain," explains Rashdan. "When they plant things that have a demand, then they can supply. Otherwise, they won't have sufficient budget to roll for the next season."

Lastly, it's about assessment. And this is where he comes in, says the 42-year-old. "The Home Ministry has asked me to do an assessment and provide a report on how the farms belonging to the communities that we're helping are actually sustainable and are able to produce a good yield for the community."

Once they've succeeded in transforming the homeless, in addition to having them undergo personal development training, the idea is to get these "reformed" homeless to then go to the PPR flats around KL.

"They in turn will conduct engagements and help set up farms for those living there. This is all long term planning," shares Rashdan, adding that the short term plan is to first engage these communities — the homeless and the needy — and ask them what they want.

MAKING IT WORK

He points to examples that he's observed from his work travels. "This can work," exclaims Rashdan, adding: "I saw in Bandung, Indonesia, where they have a movement called Bandung Berkebun, an initiative mooted by the then-mayor — an architect by profession."

Continuing excitedly, he adds: "This architect saw just how dire the situation was with the marginal groups who had no food. Just giving money, he knew, wouldn't solve the problem. It was too short term. So he galvanised the youths of Bandung — the university students etc. — and taught them farming skills. He brought in field experts to train the youths and they went on to start doing community farming back in their hometowns."

Today, says Rashdan, whose father worked for Arkib Negara (National Archive), many cities in Indonesia have duplicated what Bandung did and are actively promoting community farming. "We need to look at our neighbour as an example to emulate," muses the KL-lite, adding: "They trained their people to grow their own food. But Malaysians don't seem to see the urgency because we can still pop out to the supermarket. We're still complacent and depending on our government and NGOs."

Passionately, he adds: "We need to teach our people to be survivors!"

ANSWERING A CALL

Rewinding back to his role with Zer0Hunger, Rashdan confides that having cemented his reputation, he was approached by Zer0Hunger and Red Crescent to advise them on how to develop urban farms.

"I said it's easy. Just ensure that the committees they're setting out to help are serious about wanting to change," says Rashdan, adding: "If not, it'll just go down the drain. The only way to have a successful community project is to have the commitment and belief of the people."

When he came on board, he helped the organisation set up an urban farm in Pentas, Zer0Hunger's "hub" located in Kg Baru, a Malay enclave in central Kuala Lumpur. Elaborating, he says: "It's only about 10x15 feet and we plant basics like chillis etc. At the end of the day, you can have the concept and training, but if you're not consistent, your farm will not succeed."

As we near the end of our chat, I ask Rashdan, the youngest of three siblings, what is it that drives him? Why is it so important for him to champion the cause of the poor and homeless?

His eyes take on a faraway look when he replies: "I was born in HKL. The moment I opened my eyes, I saw our family home — a flat in Sri Pahang, a public housing flat in KL. There are two versions of Sri Pahang flats; one was the 4-storey version and the other, 14 stories. My family stayed in the former, which DBKL had designed especially for vision-impaired residents."

Continuing softly, Rashdan who's proud to share that he only studied up to SPM and spent his formative years helping his mother sell nasi lemak at Bukit Damansara, says that inevitably, having grown up and seen first-hand the problems that beset the children living in his PPR flat, he'd be strongly pulled to the cause.

"I saw people not having enough money or food to eat. I saw the social issues that arose as a result. It was time to go deep and understand," he admits, before concluding solemnly: "I don't want to be Superman or an angel. But how can I just sit there and do nothing having seen so much? These issues will evolve and affect the future generation. I want to ensure that the future generation from this community can enjoy equal opportunities too."

Zer0Hunger is a Sustainable Social Impact Action Platform aspiring to be the most comprehensive platform addressing a wide range of social problems, which includes poverty, hunger, food banks, fulfilment entities and community farms.

Check www.zer0hunger.org or on Instagram @zer0hungerorg for details.

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