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The unbeaten 125-year-old network that feeds Mumbai

Dabbawalas deliver hundreds of thousands of meals on foot and by bike in one of India's busiest cities every day. The new wave of food-delivery start-ups wants to know how they do it.

In the last few years, online food-delivery companies like Deliveroo and Uber Eats have made having specially prepared food brought to your desk seem like the height of app-based luxury. Similar start-ups are gaining popularity in India too. But dabbawalas have been doing it for 125 years – and the newcomers have much to learn.

Despite relying on an unskilled workforce, a two-tier management system and nothing more high-tech than Mumbai’s train network, this 5,000-strong cooperative is recognised as one of the world’s most efficient logistics systems. They make a tidy side-line hosting executives from delivery giants like FedEx and Amazon.

Even Richard Branson has spent a day learning their secrets.

Unlike Deliveroo and Uber Eats – or India’s home-grown equivalents, such as Swiggy and Runnr – dabbawalas do not deliver restaurant food. Instead, they pick up home-cooked meals – mostly from the customers’ own houses – and deliver them to their workplace in time for lunch.

The service is not only reliable, it’s cheap – roughly 800 rupees a month (less than £10). "People think it's a luxury getting food delivered to their office,” says Subodh Sangle, coordinator of the Mumbai dabbawalas. “But we make our service available to everyone from the security guard to the CEO.”

Most dabbawalas are quick to dismiss their new digital rivals. “There's no competition. They won’t be able to keep up with the service we provide,” says Gavande. “There's only one Mumbai dabbawala.”

It’s hard to argue. The organisation runs its low-cost service at a very high level of performance. A 2010 study by the Harvard Business School graded it “Six Sigma”, which means the dabbawalas make fewer than 3.4 mistakes per million transactions. With deliveries to and from roughly 200,000 customers each day that translates to little more than 400 delayed or missing dabbas in a year.

Timeliness is crucial. Lunchboxes have to reach the client by 13:00 every day and it can take up to three hours to deliver them. The whole city can be affected by late deliveries, says Sangle. Dabbawalas are waved through by members of the public and traffic police alike. “If you see a dabbawalla in the street, you will give way,” he says.

Timeliness is crucial. The whole city can be affected by late deliveries – Subodh Sangle

The delivery schedule also has built-in buffers. If a delivery is due at 13:00, the dabbawala will aim for around 12:00 – even if the destination is only a quarter of an hour away, says Sangle. "That allows him to improvise if there are mistakes." For every 15 to 20 dabbawalas there is also always someone on stand-by in case one of them gets delayed.

Despite the tight schedule, most of the time dabbawalas appear surprisingly relaxed, joking and chatting as they sort their dabbas. But when the next stage of the process nears, there is five minutes of sudden intense activity.

Following them around for the day is tough work. Sometimes I get distracted and when I turn back the group I’m shadowing has gone. Strict timekeeping even extends to customers – if the full lunchbox is late for collection in the morning more than two or three times, they are dropped.

Each dabbawala has a single collection and delivery area. At mid-morning they tour their neighbourhood on foot or by bicycle collecting an average of 30 dabbas. These are sorted at a local office or railway station and each dabbawala gets on a train with the dabbas heading for their delivery area. On arrival dabbas coming from all over the city are sorted again before being loaded onto bicycles and handcarts for the final leg.

This complex series of exchanges relies on an esoteric alphanumeric code scrawled on each lunchbox – indecipherable to the uninitiated but designed to be easily understood by all dabbawalas.

A dabbawalas’ commitment to the job is partly because it pays well – roughly 12,000 rupees (£140) a month, a good salary in India for what is essentially unskilled labour. The fame of the dabbawalas also gives the job a certain prestige. This can lead to perks like discounted mobile phone subscriptions and scholarships for a dabbawala’s children funded by organisations keen to be associated with the respected network.

And as a cooperative all dabbawalas are equal partners with supervisors called mukadams who are elected. “You don’t have to say ‘Salam, sir’ or ‘Yes, sir’ to anyone,” says dabbawala Anil Bhawagat.

But there are also more profound reasons for their dedication. The dabbawalas belong almost exclusively to the Vakari community, which worships the Hindu god Vithala. Vithala teaches that giving food is one of the greatest donations you can make. "The dabbawalas say we are getting a golden chance to walk the path of spirituality while earning our bread," says Sangle.

Even so, as the convenience of app-based delivery services catches on, will the dabbawalas keep up? Food delivery is firmly in the sights of India’s new breed of tech entrepreneurs, says Pankaj Jain, a partner at US start-up accelerator 500 Start Ups.

But he thinks any threat is some way off. The sector has yet to get going, he says. Part of the problem is that companies just assumed they could transplant business models.

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