Since early childhood, 33-year-old Menna had daydreamed about traveling abroad to explore the world and herself. Her rebellious spirt, stemming from living under strict familial and societal rules, blossomed following her first journey to Europe after graduating from Ain Sham University in Cairo in 2009, with a degree in pharmacy. During the month-long trip to Europe, she visited seven countries and was exposed to new lifestyles and cultures, and the experience of living on her own for the first time.
Upon returning home, she learned how to be a free and independent individual in a country where single women face wide-ranging restrictions resulting from familial and societal traditions that often keep them subordinate, fragile, and vulnerable.
When Menna was young, she aspired to learn and succeed on her own and not to seek support from anyone.
“This was my biggest mistake when I grew up. Later on, I learned not to feel shy or ashamed to ask others for help when it is needed. We always need assistance from others to grow and succeed and I now believe it is a source of power not weakness,” Menna told Inside Arabia.
Menna’s father was a life-changing mentor despite the fact that he was stricter with her than with her brothers because of her gender. According to Menna, her father’s authoritarian behavior comes out of fear and a tendency to protect his family, which is common in Egypt and Islamic cultures.
“Yet, he has motivated me to become a better person. He used to tell me that I was smart and he taught me that to accomplish my goal and make my dreams come true, first, I had to have an unwavering conviction of my goal, then a dogged determination and courage to clear up all hurdles on the way,” Menna said.
Overall, such strict upbringing planted both seeds of rebellion and courage and enabled her to chart a new path in life as a social entrepreneur, wife, and mother. Menna is married to a supportive Dutch husband and has a one-month-old baby boy named Kamil (which means “perfection” in Arabic).
Menna believes that the more hardship she goes through, the stronger she becomes.
“For instance, on my first day at work in a pharmaceutical company in Dubai, I left the hospital to go to the office. I had started bleeding on the plane flying from Cairo to Dubai. Immediately upon landing, I was admitted to intensive care and was hospitalized. But I would leave the hospital and go to work anyway. Meanwhile, I was also searching for an apartment. I was juggling several balls all on my own,” Menna told Inside Arabia.
“She Travels”— an Initiative for Underprivileged Women in Egypt
Challenging experiences in Europe and the Middle East made Menna more resilient and more determined to give back to her community. This inspired her to launch a social media campaign called “She Travels” that has more than half a million followers on various social media platforms. The closed group is open exclusively to women who had no opportunity to leave the restrictive community they were born and grew up in.
“The travel helps them go through experiences and be exposed to other cultures, and ultimately reshape their personalities.”
“I found out that the plight of women in Egypt is a manifestation of various strict rules and traditions imposed by the family and the community, and the travel restrictions are part of such rules,” Menna said. “To that end, I set up the initiative targeting young women who are locked in their underprivileged communities in Upper Egypt and elsewhere in Egypt. I gave them a glimpse of hope that they can travel with modest budgets and still enjoy a new type of life that is not otherwise available in their small communities. The travel helps them go through experiences and be exposed to other cultures, and ultimately reshape their personalities.”
As part of the trips, Menna organized self-motivational workshops, run by well-trained coaches, and allowed women to travel together to further network and establish sustainable relationships.
“We took them to mountains like Saint Catherine Mountains in Sinai where they were exposed to hiking skills, others learned diving in the Red Sea,” Menna explained.
TeKeya – Rechanneling Wasted Food to the Poor
In March 2019, Menna, launched a mobile application called TeKeya, aiming to combat unused food waste and reduce ensuing amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) pollution, caused by throwing away excess food.
Shortly after its launch, the application had saved thousands of surplus meals and untouched leftovers. It connects food providers such as hotels, restaurants, and supermarkets which donate or sell their good quality unused food, at discounted and affordable prices, to poor and underprivileged people as well as to charitable organizations.
Graduating in 2009 with a degree in pharmacy did not stop Menna from thinking about the marginalized and disadvantaged in Egypt, who are also the most vulnerable in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing curfews and lockdowns.
Many people, such as day laborers and irregular workers, who were already barely making ends meet cannot even afford to buy basic food now. Menna’s application has facilitated a collaboration with several restaurants and supermarkets allowing them to redistribute the wasted food (estimated to be a third of the food they buy), to those who are most affected, including medical staff and frontline workers.
“The idea came up when I witnessed a restaurant in Cairo throwing out huge amounts of food in the trash at the end of the day. I was really upset, and after consultation with my husband who has a business background, we decided to launch the start-up app and find a solution to this deeply-rooted problem and redirect food to the people in need,” Menna said.
With an artificial intelligence algorithm, TeKeya’s app also helps restaurateurs calculate their food waste and get suggestions on how to reduce it. It’s been estimated that Menna’s initiative has reduced the CO2 footprint in Egypt by over 4 tons and helped spread awareness about the importance of redistributing wasted meals to the people in need.
TeKeya is named after a building – maintained by Egyptian governments since 1811, on the premises of holy places in the Hijaz province in Saudi Arabia – where food and other resources were transported from Egypt to serve the visiting pilgrims in need of food and accommodation. The building also included a kitchen for preparing meals and a free clinic to treat patients. It was demolished by the Saudi government in 1981.
The TeKeya team has had few difficulties convincing food retailers and restaurants to join forces on the project.
“In Egypt alone, 73 kg of food per person per year gets wasted, and this increases some 60 percent during the holy month of Ramadan.”
“It brings you back to the world’s food waste problem. Worldwide, a third of the food that is being produced goes to waste, which puts an enormous burden on the environment. In Egypt alone, 73 kg of food per person per year gets wasted, and this increases some 60 percent during the holy month of Ramadan,” Menna explained.
“I discussed the idea of the start-up enterprise with my husband, and we attended many workshops, courses, and videos before we launched. Benefiting from my husband’s commercial background, we went further and studied similar models in the West to gain better understanding of food management and projects,” Menna added.
Egypt is the most populous country in the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region. With a population exceeding 100 million. According to a study conducted by the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition (BCFN) published in June 2012, Egypt comes in the 16th place as the largest food waste producer. Overall, food waste claims one-third of the world’s food supply, according to an estimate by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) in 2013.
As the Barilla study makes clear, however, it is important to distinguish between the types of waste in different parts of the world. In rich countries, it occurs mostly in homes and in the retail industry, at the level of consumption, that is in restaurants, hotels, grocery stores, and supermarkets. While in the developing world, the majority of the wasted food takes place in the fields, at the production level, where it is caused by inefficient harvesting, and inadequate storing and transporting of the crops in a timely and safe manner. Menna’s app addresses the problem mainly in the retail industry.
Now TeKeya has been expanded to many provinces in Egypt, and Menna aspires to extend the experience to cover the Arab Gulf states soon. After testing the regional market, she plans to expand to the rest of MENA, as food waste is definitely a global issue.
As for the “She Travels” initiative, “it is suspended because of the Covid-19 pandemic but will resume as soon as the pandemic fades away,” Menna said.
Menna is an example and role model for many people. She is an inspiration for those who seek to bring a de facto social change in the Arab region, which has gone through seismic political turmoil in the wake of the Arab Uprisings.
This type of change is reflective of Asef Bayat‘s notion of “social non-movement,” which means, in its broader sense, the collective action of dispersed and unorganized actors. In this sense, Menna’s non-movement activism to solve pressing issues affecting society is made and realized mostly through direct actions, rather than through exerting pressure on authorities to concede. Ultimately, the strategy is meant to correct state dysfunctionality without overthrowing it, given organized movements and direct conflict with the state has proven to be a losing battle.
With this in mind, along with her determined and creative approach, Menna appears to be on the right track.