On Taking People's Junk in Dubai
Social entrepreneurship can be described as
the "recognition of a social problem and the
use of entrepreneurial principles to organize, create, and manage a venture to
make social change." (Wikipedia)
I strive to become a social entrepreneur
because I believe that the practice of social entrepreneurship is inherently
solutions oriented. Too much time is spent in our world discussing the best way
to approach the solution to a particular problem, leaving little energy and
bandwidth to act on these solutions. By definition, entrepreneurs act on a
particular opportunity, and I have been fortunate enough to meet a number of
inspirational figures over the last couple of years who have done exactly this.
Ken Banks, who founded the much praised FrontlineSMS platform, Jon Gosier, who
is rapidly developing a respectable software industry in Uganda, Okello John
Speke, an ex-child soldier who now runs an organization that produces paper
bead jewellery which is sold in the U.S. and Ben Lyon, who recognized the opportunity
for providing a broad base of mobile financial solutions in Africa are all
This article tells the story of a different
type of social entrepreneur, who I first heard about in a report on CNN. It told
the story of Faisal Khan, who spends his days driving around Dubai and
collecting old goods from western expats in the city and re-distributing these
to lower-income construction workers (primarily from South Asia) in Ajman, a
small emirate east of Dubai. I was inspired by the work that Faisal, who was
profiled in the CNN report as "Dubai's modern day Robin Hood", was doing and
the pro-active approach he was taking to addressing a social issue that I become
very interested in over the past couple of years (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/7985361.stm).
I decided to give Faisal a call to see whether I could stop over in Dubai on my
way back from Uganda in March to meet with him and to learn from the work he
and his organization Take My Junk UAE
were doing in the region (Emirates
Airlines provides the option of complementary stopover when transiting in
Dubai). After few calls to the airline and a quick booking into a small
two-star hotel, I was all set for a 24 pit stop in Dubai to learn from yet
another inspirational social entrepreneur.
The increasingly familiar Dubai Skyline. Although still under construction in this picture, the 828m tall Burj Khalifa (the tallest building in the world) literally scrapes the sky. (Photo credits: donpf1)
On a warm desert morning on the 9th
of March, I gave Faisal a call to confirm the time and place where we would be
meeting. We had arranged by email beforehand that I would spend the day with
him and accompany him on some pick-ups, which we would then deliver to the Take My Junk warehouse in Ajman. The
main question I had that morning was how we would find each other at Dubai
Airport, the place we had arranged to meet. Faisal responded calmly with:
"Don't worry, I am not easy to miss. Just look out for a Toyota SUV with a big
trailer on the back."
Take My Junk UAE's unmissable trailer carrying a morning's worth of pickups from expat villas in Dubai.
And he really wasn't joking! At around
midday, the Toyota pulling a massive trailer approached the pickup point at
Emirates Terminal 3 and traversed through the many luxury cars that were
waiting to pickup busy travellers. The trailer was filled to the rim with just
about everything you could imagine - from mattresses, to furniture, clothes,
toys and more. I soon found out that business is going extremely well for Take My Junk as Dubai is an incredibly
transient city. Whether you are South Asian worker trying to find opportunities
to support your family back home or a high-profile banker from the UK, most
people are only in Dubai temporarily and are there for one reason: to earn
money. This results in a lot of expats moving in and out of villas in the city,
both situations that Take My Junk can
directly benefit from. People moving out need to get rid of unwanted items fast
and people moving in may be presented with unwanted items left behind by
The landscape changes very quickly when driving 15 minutes out of Dubai.
Take My Junk makes about 10 pickups a day
on average, and only requests for donations to help cover their infrastructural
and transportation costs. "We want people's junk and not their money" says Faisal,
who acts as the centre point of the organization, speaking both English and
Urdu fluently. He has two phones - one with a better incoming and the other
with a better outgoing plan, and he is constantly on them (you usually have to
wait for a couple of minutes when calling him, as he always seems to be on the
other line!) Take My Junk prides
itself in immediate responses to pick up requests.
Outside the Take My Junk UAE warehouse in Ajman.
Inside the warehouse. Incoming items are sorted and redistributed to South Asian construction workers for a nominal fee. Business is going so well that Faisal has had to open a second warehouse to store everyone's "junk"!
Faisal lived in Canada for 30 years before
returning to Dubai, where he was born. He had heard in the media about the
situation faced by South Asian construction workers in Middle East and decided
to take action by visiting a labour camp and understanding the issues first
hand. Take My Junk started as a food
delivery service for the workers and Faisal plans to re-introduce this with a
new program to deliver bags of rice to the labour camps that are sponsored by
various companies with offices in the city.
The construction site for yet another luxury apartment and shopping complex.
The entrance to a labor camp right next to the consttruction site.
This is a typical labor camp where South Asian construction workers live for the length of their stay in the United Arab Emirates.
Take My Junk's approach to the business is
similar to the approaches taken by a number of other social entrepreneurs I
have met. The organization is first and foremost a "junk removal service" and
this is also how it is advertised. "Social impact" is an essential ingredient
of the operation, however, this is not necessarily what attracts the majority
of customers. I remember hearing something similar in a talk from Jeff Swartz,
CEO of the Timberland Company, who said that "most people are not going to buy
a shoe simply because it is made from recycled materials - the first
requirement is that it is a good shoe." The software consultancy Appfrica that
I worked for in Uganda was run on a similar principle - the core aspect of
their business is that they make good software, but working on a number of key
projects with clear benefits in terms of social impact is also a fundamental
part of their identity.
As embodied by this blog, travelling around
and meeting interesting people is hands-down one of my favourite things to do. There
are many situations in the world that I find unjust or that I simply don't
understand, and I learn most when exposing myself to these situations first
hand. Learning from the Take My Junk
organization, seeing a labour camp and meeting Faisal Khan and his family, along
with a number of other wonderful individuals from Bangladesh and Pakistan who
work construction jobs in the city, was definitely one of these experiences. Even
though I was only in United Arab Emirates for 24 hours, the experience was nothing
short of inspirational and, like many others, has helped to form my identity as
an aspiring social entrepreneur.