Freshly cooked dal, okra, rice and roti are packed safely into a metal tiffin when the doorbell rings. A white capped dabbawallah is anxiously waiting for the lunchbox but he is sure to flash a smile before he speeds away on his bicycle. At the local train station, he adds six more lunch boxes to a wooden plank that is hoisted onto his colleague’s head. It weighs 65 kilograms (143 pounds). Fighting the remainder of rush hour commuter traffic, the second dabbawallah steps into the luggage compartment of a Mumbai local, sets his cargo on the ground with the help of two colleagues and chats idly as the train pulls out of the station.
Several stations down the line, plank again on his head, he disembarks from the train and passes the tiffins off to another white capped dabbawallah who hops onto his bicycle and races off down the street. He enters an office building and drops off the lunchbox on the indicated floor.
This is the process through which 5,000 dabbawallahs deliver 200,000 lunches in Mumbai each day. It is a system of unparalleled complexity that is widely lauded for using an unwritten system and almost never making a mistake (perhaps one in sixteen million). The service has been featured in numerous case studies by elite management programs such as Harvard Business School, and its efficiency has been loudly praised by international publications such as The New York Times, The Guardian and Forbes. While the service’s success rate and complexity are commendable and impressive, the Mumbai Tiffin Box Supplier’s Association should instead be revered as a model for sustainable business.
The dabbawallahs’ business operations have an extremely low impact on the environment. First, they bring back lunch containers, which allows the use of reusable metal tiffins. Meanwhile, other lunch delivery services bring their hungry customers their lunch items in separate, throw-away plastic containers. Given that the dabbawallahs deliver 200,000 lunches per day, they are effectively saving a million plastic cups from being used, every day. From production to disposal, plastic represents a slow motion ecological disaster. The importance of ending our dependence on plastic cannot be understated: by 2050 it is projected that plastic in the ocean will outweigh fish.
Second, dabbawallas use clean transport to deliver the multitude of lunch boxes each day. They exclusively use bicycles and public transport, which brings their transportation environmental footprint to nearly zero. Traffic and pollution are two issues that unite every Mumbaikar. Any business that opts for clean transport and doesn’t add to the clogged streets should be loudly praised. However, it should be noted that recently they have begun experimenting with scooters because of increased competition from food delivery apps.
Third, not only does the business use clean and public transport in its own operations, their service allows more people to take the train. One reason the demand for the tiffin service persists is that Mumbai local trains play host to the “super-dense crush load” (they had invent a term for the level of passenger density) each morning and evening, leaving no space for lunch boxes. The dabbawallah’s service opens up an alternative and helps allow the 7.5 million train commuters in Mumbai fit into the wagons.
Finally, the dabbawallahs use an unwritten, largely paperless system to bring customers their lunches. While other restaurants and apps seem as though they are competing to see how much useless paper and packaging they can provide, the dabbawallahs use none. Paper production and recycling is dirty business; it is one of the most energy intensive sectors of the EU, for example. And there is a social benefit to the unwritten system as well: India’s 300 million illiterate people are qualified for well-paid, meaningful work, and in fact, a majority of the dabbawallas are illiterate.
Not only is their business model low impact, they also promote healthy eating. Instead of patronizing a nearby canteen or buying packaged, processed lunch items the day before, the dabbawallah service allows hundreds of thousands of Mumbaikars access to fresh, unprocessed, hygienic food. And, as explained above, the service is necessary because there is no option to carry a tiffin: during Mumbai rush hour, up to 16 people can be packed into 1 meter of floor space on the local trains. Not only does their service help keep the populous healthy, but it also reduces the amount of food processing, an industry so energy-intensive that in the United States it accounts for 15.7% of total energy use!
Mumbai’s dabbawallah service deserves to be widely praised for much more than its impressive success rate. Its low impact business model should become a poster child of the sustainable business movement and inspire everyone from entrepreneurs to Flipkart. It’s important to note, however, that the association was not designed with sustainability directly in mind. Given several economic constraints, frugality was most likely the main driver to its low cost supply chain innovations. It is a prime example of the jugaad (frugal innovation) that can be seen daily on the streets in India. And it serves as a reminder that a scarcity of resources doesn’t inhibit innovation, it drives it.
About the Author: Nick Hamilton, a former employee of Reality Tours and Travel.