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Thursday, 4 March 2021

My Morning / WFH Routine: Mohsen Sarhan, CEO of the Egyptian Food Bank

Mohsen Sarhan, CEO of the Egyptian Food Bank: Each week, my Morning / WFH Routine looks at how a successful member of the community starts their day — and then throws in a couple of random business questions just for fun. Speaking to us this week is Mohsen Sarhan, CEO of the Egyptian Food Bank (LinkedIn). Edited excerpts from our conversation:

My name is Mohsen Sarhan, and I'm a value driven individual. Everything I do is determined by how I’m adding value. It is the main criterion I use to decide when and for how long I continue walking down a chosen path.

I'm also the CEO of the Egyptian Food Bank and founder of a social impact evaluation firm called Athar (LinkedIn). I started my position as chief executive at the Food Bank about a year ago, just two weeks before the pandemic hit.

I wake up at 5:30 am and typically start my day with some exercise. I used to train for long distance running, and if I had a training session dialed in before a race I’d get to that until about 7:00 am. Afterwards I have coffee while I reflect on my interactions with people from the day before. I try to maintain a compassionate and people-based work culture at the Food Bank and try as best as I can to keep the place from turning into a corporate work environment.

I head to the office at 8:30 am where my day is usually organized into 30 minute blocks. They’re usually spent in individual meetings with the heads of our eight departments talking about our social, strategic and operational goals.

We’ve been working full time at the office, at the executive level, for the past year. Employees at our offices who could WFH were sent home but our manufacturing operations, where we package boxes of food that are sent to those in need, could not be halted during the height of the pandemic. We had to make sure people we served felt safe staying at home which meant our operations kept running. Work at our sorting and packaging facilities, which employs about 75 full time workers and 150 temporary workers in times of need, was spread into multiple shifts and some of our production was outsourced to other factories — including our own newly constructed Badr City facility. Right now we’re working on a hybrid model where some office jobs have become strictly WFH and some others work on a rotation.

We’re now working at three times the scale of our pre-pandemic work. Before covid-19 we had a database with about 1 mn households that we offered services to. Around 130k of those were families that are unable to work for an income and rely on us for monthly support. During the pandemic that number shot up to some 5 mn families, which included day laborers and small scale shop owners, that suddenly had their incomes frozen. When we launched our online relief portal we had 350k requests come in in about five days.

We ratified our first strategic plan and our own Hunger Index last month which is the first impact-based plan for any civil society organization in the country. We developed the index as a quantitative model that aggregates our KPIs to evaluate progress on our four target projects. Households that are unable to maintain a stable income and require continuous support receive our assistance through our Food Security initiative. Our Prevention platform focuses on alleviating malnutrition-related diseases in children from pregnancy through the age of 5. Integrating people within our end-to-end supply chain, as producers or distributors, is the main focus of our Empowerment program. Elevate is our new research and development arm that will allow us to experiment with different models of support. We’re working with development partners at the Harvard Center CID, the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, MIT’s Poverty Action Lab and AUC statisticians and economists.

People tend to give a lot more when crises hit, and we’ve consistently seen this trend in Egypt. That means our capacity grows and our obligation to work at a higher level goes up with it. Close to 40% of the funding for our pandemic relief campaign came from private sector donations.

If you want to change people’s lives, it's essential to measure the impact of your work. It's a common mistake in the development sector to assume that impact is realized simply because services are delivered. The reality is that we usually have too little information to tell, which is why we’ll be collecting a lot more data going forward and conducting randomized control trials with people who receive our support.

I like to read for an hour before going to sleep at 10 pm. Most of my reading these days has been focused on development. I'm currently reading a book called Doing Good Better by William MackAskill. It talks about how good intentions are fundamental but not enough. It even makes the case that good intentions can be harmful if not carefully assessed. Another book I’d highly recommend is called Measuring What Matters by John Doerr. It talks about the evolution of the balanced scorecard system to a new goal setting strategy slowly gaining traction called OKRs (Objectives and Key Results).

I believe in a concept called a stress performance curve. The right amount of stress can really show you what you’re capable of. Too much of it can kill you, but too little stress can rob you of the chance to learn what you’re made of.

In a lot of ways my job doesn't really feel like work. It took me a year after I started working in development to become very aligned with my work, and I stopped looking at it like it was my job. Passion for this cause is really what drives me. I firmly believe that people need to be aligned with both the service culture and the particular cause at hand to really excel at what they’re doing.

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