Nitin Rao

India’s Dabbawalas Reinvent Themselves

It’s heartening to come across real stories of people, who are by no means rich or well educated, entering and supporting the market economy. In India’s financial capital of Mumbai, Dabbawalas, whose job is to carry and deliver freshly made food from home in lunch boxes to office workers, are making a mark for themselves.

Every day, 5000 semi-literate Dabbawalas transport 200,000-boxes in a 3-hour period, through a 25 km of public transportation involving multiple transfer points. Forbes magazine, in 1998, gave this service the highest quality rating of Six Sigma. They do this without any IT support. Their business model is a case study at the Harvard Business School. Last December, students at Stanford GSB met them as part of their India Study trip.Dabbawalas recognize the need to reinvent themselves. Orders can be placed online at or through text messages.

The Economic Times reports that Bharti AirTel [India’s largest mobile service provider with a market cap of $30.6 billion] is partnering with an association of Dabbawalas to sell its pre-paid cards, new connections and bundled handsets. Nearly 5000 Dabbawalas will find an additional source of income, earning $5.70 for every new subscriber they bring to AirTel.

An excerpt:

The tie-up would provide nearly 5,000 dabbawallas of Mumbai an additional source of revenue. The tie-up is yet another attempt by the telecom operators to increase their reach in Mumbai. Some like AV Birla’s Idea Cellular are already selling vouchers through dhabas (eateries) along the highways of Haryana. Some others are using village panchayats to sell their telecom products and services. India is adding more than 6 million mobile users every month and telecom firms are all going all out to tap every available distribution channel in the scramble for market share. The dabbawallas will provide the registration form to prospective customers and collect the filled forms.

What is of significance is not that 5000 people earning $3 a day could move above the Bottom of the Pyramid. It is that these Dabbawalas represent a vast and untapped pool of human capital – who would like to be seen as being not cheap, but competent.