The legendary dabbawalas of Mumbai

In Mumbai, thousands of “dabbawalas” deliver hot lunches to hundreds of thousands of customers throughout the city, and then return the empty dabbas (lunchboxes) the same day. They are a model of efficiency, a decentralized network that functions better than many mechanized or computerized ones, and yet they don’t even use smartphones. Harvard Business Review wrote about the dabbawala system in 2012 (found via the Why Is This Interesting newsletter):

“The 5,000 or so dabbawalas in the city have an astounding service record. Every working day they transport more than 130,000 lunchboxes throughout Mumbai, the world’s fourth-most-populous city. That entails conducting upwards of 260,000 transactions in six hours each day, six days a week, 52 weeks a year (minus holidays), but mistakes are extremely rare.

Amazingly, the dabbawalas—semiliterate workers who largely manage themselves—have achieved that level of performance at very low cost, in an ecofriendly way, without the use of any IT system or even cell phones.

The dabbawala service is legendary for its reliability. Since it was founded, in 1890, it has endured famines, wars, monsoons, Hindu-Muslim riots, and a series of terrorist attacks. It has attracted worldwide attention and visits by Prince Charles, Richard Branson, and employees of Federal Express, a company renowned for its own mastery of logistics.”

One Reply to “The legendary dabbawalas of Mumbai”

  1. The word “Dabbawala” can be interpreted as “box-carrier” or “lunchpail-man”. In Marathi and Hindi, “dabba” means a box (usually a cylindrical aluminium container), while “wala” signifies someone in a trade concerning the object referred to in the former term. More specifically, the word dabbawala implies a person in the Indian city of Mumbai who carries and delivers freshly made food from home in lunch boxes to office workers. Dabbawalas are sometimes called tiffin-wallas. The profession of these people is a highly specialised trade that is more than a century old. They are a part and parcel of daily life of Mumbai Officegoers by providing food .


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