Asia's Most Influential: Nizar Mohamed Shariff, Founder of Free Food for All
Nizar Mohamed Shariff’s life today is a world apart from the affluent lifestyle he used to lead. Formerly in the shipping business, he was living it up in the lap of luxury with multiple cars and gifting luxury watches and jewellery to his family on a whim.
The turning point came in 2014 when, at the age of 43, Nizar’s conscience began catching up with him.
“I don’t like the feeling of making money off the sweat, tears and pain of others. That’s what shipping is all about. I’ve seen grown-ups grovelling on the floor crying and begging for mercy; it’s very dirty. I just couldn’t stand the lies and the trickery involved,” he says, describing the unethical and sometimes unscrupulous business practices that are par for the course in the industry.
I measure someone’s wealth no longer by what he has, but by what he’s willing to give.
Compelled by his misgivings, he set out to do good instead. His early efforts in philanthropy, however, were thwarted by a con woman, who swindled him of thousands of dollars not once, but twice.
“I realised how terrible people can be; how people abused the system, collected the money and then the money disappeared. I did not have faith in the charity system in Singapore,” Nizar recalls. So he decided to establish his own organisation instead. Free Food For All (FFFA) was set up to provide free halal meals to those in need, regardless of race and religion.
In the first six months, he used up more than $100,000 of his own funds, and as the movement gained traction, FFFA was officially registered as a charity in 2015, with Institutions of a Public Character (IPC) status thus allowing for tax-deductible donations.
FFFA now runs several programmes to address food insecurity and food waste, providing food for 80 to 100 families a month, and has served more than 100,000 households in Singapore to date.
“With FFFA, we don’t just provide solutions that have been around since the 1950s. We really provide food aid, and we also look into palatability,” says Nizar. Product innovation is therefore a high priority under his purview, while FFFA’s lean team of six takes care of the daily operations. Going beyond basics, FFFA offers vegetarian options and even includes desserts in its emergency rations.
Our crab meat soup has got to be the most premium, and it tastes as good as one from a Chinese restaurant.
And under his stewardship, FFFA has designed a two-pack system of self-heating meals for the homeless. This way, the recipient can have “piping hot food in under 10 minutes”.
(Related: Bridging The Food Waste And Food Insecurity Gap: How Singaporeans Are Doing Their Part)
“I’m always looking for new technologies to make the food safer, last longer, and more compact while providing more yield in terms of calories,” he explains.
He has also been busy supplying food beyond Singapore shores, through another agency he founded, Food for Change, which tackles food insecurity in impoverished overseas communities and helps them access to basic necessities such as food and clean water.
The organisation provides short-term emergency aid like soup kitchens for Rohingya refugees and in November, it shipped a container of 23,000 ready-to-eat cups of chicken biryani and 5,000 pouches of mutton curry to war-torn Yemen, where more than 24 million people (some 80 per cent of the population, of which more than 12 million are children) are in need of humanitarian assistance. The meals are produced by a food partner in Brunei, and Food for Change has also sent emergency food packs to Syria and Turkey.
In addition to ready-to-eat meals, Food for Change also supplies calorie-dense energy bars from New Zealand that are designed to address malnutrition, where two biscuit-sized bars can provide a hungry child with 1,000 calories per day. In the war-ravaged region of Gaza in Palestine, desalination plants are being built to allow poor families to access free clean drinking water—at a cost of $18,000 per plant, most of which Food for Change is funding. Donations make up the rest of the payment.
(Related: How One Food Futurist is Contributing to Solving a Looming Global Food Shortage)
For all his good work, life hasn’t been entirely kind to Nizar, now 49. He has been wheelchair-bound for the past two years, unable to walk due to diabetic neuropathy, and had a foot amputated last June due to diabetes complications.
“But it has not stopped me from doing what I need to do,” he responds swiftly. “There’s a certain part of me that tells me I’m living on borrowed time. I should have not been that greedy; the stains will always be there, but they remind you of what you were and all you can do right now is try to be an agent of positive change. I measure someone’s wealth no longer by what he has, but by what he’s willing to give.”
- Photography Darren Gabriel Leow
- Styling Joey Tan
- Grooming Zhou Aiyi
- Photographer's Assistant Eric Tan