Neel Ghose is gathering volunteers from around the world to eradicate hunger by feeding the poor!
Meet 29-year-old Neel Ghose – founder of the ‘Robin Hood army’! This army, helmed by Mr. Ghose, wishes to change the world by using food as a medium. The Robin Hood Army (RHA) curbs food wastage in India by taking excess food from restaurants, communities, weddings and a few other places and giving it to the underprivileged. This initiative thrives on the passion and enthusiasm of like-minded individuals.
In conversation with Neel Ghose:
Why did you first think of establishing Robin Hood Army?
I stumbled upon the idea of using food that would otherwise be wasted while working for Zomato in Lisbon, Portugal. My inspiration was ‘Re-food’ – a social initiative like Robin Hood Army in Portugal. I realised that this idea can do wonders in India as we are one of the largest hungry populations in the world.
What motivated you to give shape to your idea?
190.7 million people are undernourished in India. Nearly 3,000 children die every day from hunger. We have the largest undernourished population in the world. Not enough people talk about this massive problem. Also, 40 percent of the food that our country produces is wasted. So, food wastage in India is no joke. We found a correlation between the two and decided to use the disadvantages to our advantage. Our first experience was an eye-opener. We had food for 150 people and were wondering if we will be able to find so many people to feed. Instead, we found thousands! These hungry people live around you. You don’t see them unless you look for them.
Can you tell us a little about the Robin Hood Army?
The Robin Hood army is a social initiative which responds to hunger. It is a zero-funds organization. We do not raise funds or accept funds from donors. We divide every city into sections according to neighbourhoods. For eg., Mumbai has 18 sections. The food that we collect from restaurants in Bandra reaches the homeless, old age shelters, orphanages in Bandra. In this manner, we function across the country.
How did the journey of the Robin Hood Army begin?
The journey of the Robin Hood Army began in August 2014. Along with a few friends, I started this initiative in Delhi. We were very lucky in terms of the passion and overwhelming response that we received from the people here. In the beginning, it was only a couple of friends and me who wore green shirts and distributed food under the Hauz Khas flyover. Some of the restaurants from which we were taking food were a little apprehensive as to whether the food was actually being used to curb food wastage in India. In order to prove our authenticity, we decided to upload pictures of distributing the food on social media. That picked up and various people from different cities like Mumbai, Kolkata, and Chennai wrote to us, asking when we were coming to their city. This was something we hadn’t planned. However, social media has become our biggest strength. We can now engage with potential volunteers all over the world. We get close to 1600 volunteers to join us on Facebook every day.
Where and how does the food come from?
The food mostly comes from restaurants and communities. There are various housing complexes in Mumbai that contribute freshly-cooked meals. We make this food reach the poor. We are also tapping weddings and various other festivals where the wastage of food is enormous. Once, a wedding in Hyderabad fed 290 hungry people! Another in Surat fed 6000 hungry people! However, weddings usually end at 1 a.m. in the night. It is not possible to collect food at that hour from everywhere in the country. Hence, we can’t only rely on weddings/functions to collect food.
What has kept you going?
What keeps me going is that we are still nowhere near addressing the problem at the national level. We are able to provide 2500-3000 meals a month. However, there are close to 1 million people who are hungry every day. We are only able to serve 1% of the population.
Another thing that keeps me going is the network of Robins. We are a group of like-minded and passionate people. It is extremely motivating to see them work.
After you build something from scratch, it becomes your baby. You don’t want your efforts to go to waste and hence you work hard to take it to another level.
What is the biggest challenge you faced?
The biggest challenge is lack of time. Everyone contributes in their free time. As it is a zero funds organization, no one can take it up as a full-time job as it doesn’t raise money. Everyone is juggling their family, professional commitments and other things along with working for Robin Hood Army. If I want to coordinate with someone, the other person also has to be free at the same time. However, what we lose in terms of efficiency, we make up in terms of passion and commitment.
How far do you think you have come in your journey with the Robin Hood Army?
We still have so much more to do! Everything in the Robin Hood Army leads to something new and different. For eg. in Indore, we decided to start teaching children by starting the Robin Hood Academy. My co-founder, Aarushi is the one who came up with the idea. When I heard about it, I wasn’t excited as I come from a family of educators and I thought that we cannot take the responsibility for something as important as education. However, Aarushi encouraged me to focus on the number of children that we could be educating and putting in schools. Currently, the Robin Hood Academy is in 23 cities in India with 2500 children benefiting from it. We have managed to put 560 students in schools. In the Robin Hood Academy, we encourage children to learn English, Math and other important subjects. We make sure they have authentic identity proofs and we also counsel their parents.
Who has been your support throughout your journey?
Starting with my colleagues from Zomato to restaurant partners and housing complexes, tons of people have helped the Robin Hood Army stay afloat. My family and friends have also extended their support unconditionally. The Robin Hood Army has garnered a lot of appreciation from the society at large. When we have asked for help, we have always received it. It has been a very humbling experience. When you want to make a difference, everyone has your back.
Tell us about the 1 incident that made you feel that your efforts have been worthwhile.
There have been many heartwarming incidents during my time as a Robin. However, there was one incident for which I wasn’t present but listening to it later gave me goosebumps. In Ahmedabad, some Robins collected food at 1 a.m. from a certain social function and were distributing food to a homeless shelter. They saw a man named Laxman who hadn’t gotten up from his wheelchair in 3 months. He was covered in excreta and muck. The Robins left the food and went away. However, they returned at 2 a.m, and they helped Laxman clean up. They gave him a bath, a haircut and also a shave! All this happened at 2 a.m. in the morning!
How do you push through your worst times?
It is a very simple philosophy. I believe that I can push through by doing more. I focus on execution and the drive to get things done as opposed to what will people say/think. We are serving people who do not know where their next meal is coming from. Our work is a huge stress buster. When you are on the streets serving food, you forget about promotions and appraisals. It gives you a sense of perspective that helps you react to life in a holistic way.
What has been your proudest moment?
I am proud of my team! The level of commitment that each one has to give back to the community is infectious. It is an extremely fun team where everyone is friends with everyone. Some of them even got married! I love the culture of our team. The dedication and commitment that the Robins have has no limit.
What advice would you give our young readers who want to do something like you?
I would advise them to not overthink things. Focus on the execution. Think less, do more. Follow your gut and don’t think about others’ opinions. Be strong about your own conviction and believe in yourself.
What is next for you and your team?
Currently, we are in 77 cities. By the end of the year, we want to reach 100 cities. At present, we are serving 2500-3000 people a month. We want to increase that to half a million people. The Robin Hood Army is also expanding to Africa and Latin America. There are several educated youths in those countries who wish to make a difference but don’t know how to. We want to scale the RH academy and put 2000 children in school.
Found this article interesting? Read How A Social Worker In A Bihar Village Is Changing The Lives Of Thousands Of Students Through Rural Education!