When Retail, Humanitarian Assistance and Digital Technology Meet
The historical image associated with humanitarian aid is one of distribution points, long lines and bags of rice. But as the world evolves, so too does the assistance provided by the World Food Programme (WFP).
WFP strives to make food assistance a dignified and human experience, now giving beneficiaries in developed markets cash to buy food directly through the retail sector. Bags of rice have transformed into simple electronic cards which allow refugees to define their own food preferences at local shops.
In Lebanon, where WFP operates entirely on cash assistance, the organization established a retail team to support its 500 contracted shops in providing quality products, fair prices and kind customer service.
With the support of WFP’s Innovation Accelerator and Lebanon’s Country Office, the Dalili — ‘my guide’ in Arabic — smartphone app (available on Google Play) was created as part of this commercial approach to humanitarian assistance. It provides information on nearby shops, food prices and promotions at stores where Syrian refugees can redeem their assistance. While the platform is simple, its effect is multifaceted: it has an impact on refugees, retailers, and the local economy. And now, its benefits are available nationwide.
Muna, a shop-savvy refugee, finds her preferred supermarket
In the quiet village of Qabb Elias in eastern Lebanon, Muna (35) sits on her porch swiping through Dalili, with her three-year-old daughter Lamar by her side. Just a day away from the monthly WFP cash assistance top-up, Muna prepares a grocery list — a ritual familiar to her life back in Syria.
Bargain hunting from the comfort of her home, she is excited scrolling through the app. “One time, I found 4,000 Lebanese pounds (US$ 2.66) savings on milk,” she proudly shares. That’s enough to buy four bags of pasta, making the promotion worth four dinners for her family.
Al Radwan, the large local supermarket where Muna found the deal, quickly became her preferred shop. When asked about special promotions at Al Radwan, Lamar — meaning ‘bright’ in Arabic — leaps from her mother’s lap, eyes brightening, and exclaims, “na’am” — yes! Giggling, Muna explains both her son and daughter look forward to the promotions of their favorite foods.
Al Radwan stocks both international brands as well as Syrian brands, providing a taste of home for WFP beneficiaries. But wide variety and low prices are just part of what makes Al Radwan Muna’s favorite store.
The value of customer service for Syrian refugees
When Muna was 15, her family escaped conflict in her hometown Baghdad, finding safety in Syria. But in 2013, after war broke out in her new home, she was forced to flee to Lebanon. For Muna, who has lived over half her life as a refugee in two countries, feeling accepted by her community is essential. Customer service means more than a pleasant shopping experience; it is a matter of feeling welcome or not. “They are always kind to me at Al Radwan,” Muna says smiling.
She begins to double check her grocery list on Dalili to confirm which stores have the best prices for each item. Muna’s neighbours join her in the activity, gathering on her porch on the hot afternoon. Many of her friends also shop at Al Radwan, while others prefer smaller family shops contracted by WFP.
Competition at nearby family shop, Al-Hayek
As word of Al Radwan’s prices spread around the village through Dalili, smaller stores must compete. Al-Hayek is a family shop in Qabb Elias, across the street from an informal Syrian refugee settlement where many people receive WFP assistance. While many of these families — who live in tents without electricity — do not directly use Dalili, they still reap the benefits of its impact on competition in the village.
To compete with neighboring shops, Omar, the owner of Al-Hayek drastically improved his store with the support of WFP, who provides retail trainings and one-to-one shop consultations on issues ranging from layout to product assortment.
“The store was a mess before working with WFP. I didn’t take advantage of the space,” Omar says, “and there was little variety in products.” Now the shop is rearranged, aisles are categorized and he has added more items, including Syrian brands. He uses Dalili as free advertising for monthly promotions. As a result, there are always new faces showing up in the shop, along with his regular customers.
Mariam, a grandmother living at the refugee settlement and long-time customer of Al-Hayek, has witnessed the shop improvements. When she arrived from Syria in 2011, she could not afford to grocery shop often. Now with WFP assistance, Mariam visits Al-Hayek every month. “It feels good to walk there myself and provide for my family,” she says.
A tool for empowerment
While Dalili drives retailers to compete, lower their prices and raise profits, all residents in Qabb Elias benefit from leveraged purchasing power. The impact can be felt as friends and family throughout the community congregate over food. Back at Muna’s home, women gossip over latest deals on Dalili, while cleaning vegetables in preparation for iftar — breaking of the fast during Ramadan.
Across the street, Omar creates Ramadan promotions to attract more customers and support his dream to one day expand the family business. He posts a special deal he created on Dalili: two packs of pasta with the purchase of a can of tomato paste.
And as the sun sets, Mariam’s sons arrive at her home from nearby tents for iftar. It is her favourite time of day, as her family gathers under one roof for a meal she picked out herself.
For refugees, who have traditionally received food in distribution lines, grocery shopping is more than a routine task, it is the freedom to purchase food and cook meals that tie cultural identities. Families across Lebanon use WFP assistance to make traditional Syrian dishes, teaching children the flavours of their country. Just as Dalili connects refugees with retailers, it is the food they purchase and bring home with them that ultimately brings people together.