The Amazing Dabbawallahs: Lunch box for Life

As sophisticated as is, implementing a footprint-conscious transportation fleet remains a subject of mind boggling complexities, if not a futuristic science fiction with huge real-world potential altogether. The need for speed on the demand side and expensive automation, energy concerns and IoT requirements on the supply side, topped with bungling legacy systems under conspiracy of paralysis and unwilling to go down with the ship; most transporters around the globe have no choice but to make the most out of status quo. Yet, innovation took place some hundred years ago to see an economically and technologically viable concept come to life. Mahadeo Havaji Bachche took advantage of man’s greatest invention to-date – bicycles – and started a lunch delivery service in Bombay with about a hundred men; thus, the invention of the Dabbawallah transport concept enjoyed by Mumbai-ians today, at scale.

First off, what is a Dabbawallah and what do they do?:

Direct translation, according to Wiki, the word “Dabbawallah” means “one who carries a box”. Where “Dabba” means a box or container, the closest meaning in English would be something like the “lunch box delivery man”.

A Dabbawallah is a person that provides lunch box delivery services in Mumbai, India, predominantly by bicycle-public transportation expeditions.

Supply Chain Managemen : Lunch boxes, or what is known in Thailand as “Pinto”, are collected from multiple residences by bicycle in designated neighborhoods and delivered to a sorting place, sorted into groups and put on trains accordingly, with markings to identify the destination of the box, the railway station to unload the boxes and the destination building delivery address. The goods arrive at terminal stations in downtown Mumbai, the third and final leg delivers them to registered recipients mainly in office buildings. Empty containers are collected again and delivered back to the origination the same afternoon, in reverse order. Up to 50 heavy lunch boxes could be hauled in a single expedition.

The Coding System: Lunch boxes are identifiable in 4 ways, by the marking and color of each:

  1. Original collection points,
  2. Starting railway station,
  3. Destination railway station, and

The handling Dabbawallah at destination, building and floor.

To commence service, each Dabbawallah is required to obtain “two bicycles, a wooden crate for the tiffins, white cotton kurta-pajamas, and the white Gandhi cap (topi)” for work purposes. Earnings are distributed to each unit, monthly. Some 5,000 bicycles packed with pintos roam the street in Mumbai on a daily basis to hand deliver around 200,000 hot meals to doorsteps across the heavily condensed urban area. That comes to an average of around 40 Pintos per day-per Dabbawallah. The century old system has become the lifeline the majority of 9-5 professionals that can’t afford healthy food outside the office depend upon to maintain a good diet. According to NPR, “it’s an intricate network that requires precise timing and numerous handoffs from courier to courier”.

Economics: Six Sigma Accuracy

The associated fee to retain the footprint-conscious service from the Demand’s side of the spectrum is 5 pounds per month. Dabbawallahs are paid 8,000 rupees a month across the board, irrespective of rank, role or contribution, where “between 175,000 and 200,000 lunch boxes are moved each day by 4,500 to 5,000 Dabbawallahs”. A staggering statistic is propagated for the labor-intensive service that less than one mistake is made, e.g., wrong address delivery/return or damaged/spilled goods, for every six million deliveries. That means that, according to Quora, “they have Six Sigma accuracy in the delivery process”, or “1 in 6 million chance of mistake”. However, it is not clear whether the claim was made based on scientific results or by a conflict of interest, i.e., by Mumbai Tiffinmen’s Association president himself, Ragunath Medge, in 1998. As the top box office movie hit, “The Lunchbox” where the tiffin was delivered to the wrong hands (for good), didn’t make the case any easier, nonetheless, the New York Times supported the business concept’s viability back in 2007, that “the 125-year-old Dabbawallah industry continues to grow at a rate of 5–10% per year”.

Dabbawallahs serves office workers that prefer home-cooked food to save money and eat healthy as well as taste and hygiene. A number of work-from-home women in Mumbai, along with food suppliers such as restaurants and small time venders, have seized the business opportunity made available by the Dabbawallah network to have cooked meals ferried to customers and back. The delivery service is now Tech-savvy, as well, taking delivery requests through SMS, websites, facebook and even Flipkart for last-mile delivery !

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