A Student Draws Inspiration from the Dabbawalas of Mumbai

by Diana Drake

Uday Bansal, a high school senior from Delhi Public School, R.K. Puram, traveled from his home in New Delhi, India, this summer to participate in the KWHS Global Young Leaders Academy at Wharton in Philadelphia, Pa. While there, he learned about how entrepreneurs work to identify needs in society in order to develop successful business models. That lesson struck a chord with him and became the inspiration for this article that Bansal wrote about Mumbai’s dabbawalas. Not sure what that is? Read on! We learned something, too. It is the latest article in the KWHS Summer Essay Series.

In January 2017, I had the opportunity to participate in the Global Sustainability Summit at Shri Ram College of Commerce, Delhi University (a Mecca/Vatican for business students). The summit brought together students from more than 16 countries with guest speakers ranging from journalists and parliamentarians to social activists and businessmen.

For me, one presenter really stood out. Dr. Pawan Agrawal is an international motivational speaker and a self-made man. Dr. Agrawal’s thesis for his PhD degree is titled A Study of Logistics and Supply Chain Management of Dabbawalas in Mumbai.

For those who don’t know, dabbawalas, dressed in white uniforms, provide a lunch box (dabba) delivery-and-return service in the Indian city of Mumbai that delivers home-cooked food from clients’ homes to their offices, and then returns the empty lunch boxes back to clients’ homes.

Dr. Agrawal can best be described as a dabbawala scholar. During his summit session in January, he detailed the operations of the Mumbai dabbawalas, from the number of trains they have to change in a day, to how they code and decode the lunch boxes. It was fascinating to learn about dabbawalas from someone who has closely studied them from a business perspective and now teaches the world about how they operate. I admittedly have not spent a lot of time in Mumbai, but I became fascinated with this simple, yet highly effective business model that originated in my country. I wanted to share what I’ve learned.

From 100 to 5,000

Mumbai’s dabbawalas have been operating for more than 125 years. They have perfected their business brand through hard work and commitment. They are ubiquitous. Many people couldn’t imagine the streets of Mumbai without them.

As the story goes, about 125 years back, a Parsi banker wanted to enjoy home-cooked food in his office and gave this responsibility to the first-ever dabbawala (delivery guy). Many people liked the idea, and the demand for dabba delivery soared. It was all informal and individual effort in the beginning, but visionary Mahadeo Havaji Bachche saw the opportunity and started the lunch delivery service in its current team-delivery format with only 100 dabbawalas. As the city grew, the demand for dabba delivery also grew. Now an army of 5,000 dabbawalas in their signature Gandhi caps serve a clientele of some 200,000 Mumbaikars.

You may be wondering why people can’t carry their own lunch boxes from home. Is India still full of spoiled Maharajas (Indian kings and princes)?

Nope, that’s not the case. During my participation in the Global Young Leaders Academy at Wharton, I learned about the significance of identifying a need, a demand in society that successful entrepreneurs seek to satisfy through their products and services. Dabbawalas meet a great need in Mumbai, and their approach, however simple, is brilliant on many levels. Here’s why:

  1. Mumbai local trains, the lifeline of the city, are over-crowded, which makes it difficult for anyone to carry even a lunchbox. Trust me folks, this is not an exaggeration. You can’t board the trains without a struggle when your hands are empty, so carrying a bulky lunchbox while vying for train space is out of the question.
  1. Dr. Agrawal explains the second reason as follows: “For a man to reach his office at 9:00 a.m., he has to leave at 6:00 a.m. (because of the long train routes), which means that his wife or mother would have to cook the boxed meal at 5:00 a.m. To avoid this inconvenience, the dabbawalas collect the tiffin [an Indian word for lunch box] at say 9:00 a.m. from the house, deliver it to the office before the lunch hours and then collect the empty lunch boxes to deliver back home.”
  1. The third reason this model is especially effective in Mumbai is that home-cooked food is preferred by the masses because of health, emotional and financial reasons. Eating food from restaurants is expensive and street food, though delicious, isn’t considered especially healthy for regular consumption. Also, in my culture home-cooked food is the ultimate way for a wife or mother to express her love and affection for her husband or son. Dabbawalas tap into all these needs and have created an industry that — even after 125 years — has a growth rate of as much as 10% per year.

A Day in the Life of a Dabbawala

You can’t explore the dynamics of this unique business model without considering the logistics. It’s a simple and streamlined distribution system.

  • The first dabbawala picks up the tiffin from home and takes it to the nearest railway station.
  • The second dabbawala sorts out the dabbas at the railway station according to destination and puts them in the luggage carriage.
  • The third one travels with the dabbas to the railway stations nearest to the destinations.
  • The fourth one picks up dabbas from the railway station and drops them off at the offices.
  • The dabbawalas rely on low costs to get the job done, using cycles, wooden carriages and local trains and very little technology to meet their daily goals.
  • Several groups work independently and network with each other to cover service areas.

Of Tiffins and Takeaways

I felt compelled to write about these workers because I was amazed by their level of success and commitment. So many lessons for anyone who wants to make his way in the business world! Here are my top nine:

Passion and Practice. Some 35% of dabbawalas are illiterate, and the average education level of their workforce is 8th grade. Even so, they have created a sound and reliable delivery model that could easily go awry for even the most highly educated worker. Initially, they developed a color-coding system for the lunchboxes, but as the city and the demand for their services grew, this developed into an alpha-numeric system. Many dabbawalas can’t read the alphabet, but can recognize and differentiate the letters and numbers on the basis of their distinct shapes. On average, each dabbawala carries a weight of 130 to 150 pounds. The workforce includes dabbawalas as old as 75 years who take pride in their ability to support themselves with their hard work. “No excuses” is their motto.

Dedication. It took more than 100 years for dabbawalas to get the recognition they deserved. In our success-hungry world where people think of perks before performance, we should learn to uphold the dabbawalas’ high level of service and job performance.

Execution and accuracy. In 1998, Forbes Magazine conducted a quality-assurance study and awarded the Mumbai dabbawalas a Six Sigma efficiency rating of 99.999999! That means they have an error rate of 1 in every 16 million transactions. Mumbai dabbawalas are the second organization in the world and the first in India to earn this distinction. In the words of Dr. Agrawal, for dabbawalas “error is horror.”

Commitment to quality service. Dabbawalas depend on the local train system where they travel in the luggage compartments, but the trains are hardly ever on time. Does that mean the dabbawalas also face delays in their delivery? Never! They have made a commitment to timely delivery, and they make sure they keep their word. Dabbawalas believe that if they miss lunch hours, then clients will go without food. Dr. Agrawal explained that at times housewives pack their husbands’ medicines along with the lunchbox. If the delivery is not on time and something happens, the dabbawalas would feel responsible.

Time management. Dabbawalas believe that since they can’t control the train schedules, they have to follow strict discipline to make timely deliveries. A dabbawala works for eight-to-nine hours a day, which includes a three-hour period of so-called “war time” in the morning. This is because they have to adhere to the lunch timings of the offices of their clients and make timely deliveries no matter what happens. During their hectic nine-hour workday, dabbawalas only get 20 minutes to eat their lunches while their clients finish their meals.

Strong, experienced leadership. Each area is divided into several small distribution sectors, and each sector is handled by a person known as a mukadam (group leader). The elder-most member of the group gets the job of the mukadam, which comes with no extra pay, but the management of 12 to 14 other dabbawalas and an opportunity to lead the men in white. Many new employees work for months under the guidance of their seniors.

It’s all about work and customer. Dabbawalas charge around $10 per month per customer. They will only charge customers for the months of service, and not if they take a month-long vacation. Since their inception in 1890, the dabbawalas have never had a police case or legal dispute in court. They didn’t go on a workers’ strike until as recently as 2011, and that was for one day to support a movement against corruption and not to make personal demands, which is the case with most labor union strikes. Apart from their salary, dabbawalas expect one month salary as an extra ‘Diwali bonus,’ but they will neither complain nor quit their services if their customers deny them the bonus. When Prince Charles visited India in 2003, he wanted to meet the legendary dabbawalas. The dabbawalas agreed, but only if he would meet them between 11:20 a.m and 11:40 a.m. in front of the railway station when they were eating lunch and temporarily free from their duties.

Trust. On payday many clients keep their salaries in their lunch boxes, which are safely delivered home by the dabbawalas, in order to avoid the risk of pickpocketing on local trains. Dabbawalas add value in other ways. In one story I read, a dabbawala recounts this tale of a feuding couple: “The husband left in a rage for the office. I collected the lunchbox from his wife as usual and delivered it to the husband. When the husband opened the box, he found a letter which read, ‘I am sorry. Don’t be angry and please eat your food. I love you.’ Now the husband had turned from one angry young man to one hungry young man. He finished his food and kept two movie tickets in the lunchbox along with a letter that read, ‘I am sorry and I love you too.’ That’s why I believe that we dabbawalas don’t carry just food. At times we also carry love.” Dabbawalas have built brand loyalty and trust in Mumbai society.

Corporate social responsibility. ‘Share My Dabba’ is a dabbawala initiative that gives leftover lunch food to the underprivileged. Clients with little red share stickers on their lunchboxes participate in this community program. Roti Bank is another dabbawala initiative to address food waste at big events like marriages and at restaurants. Dabbawalas collect excess food and make sure it reaches the needy.

I’m excited to have explored the Mumbai dabbawala business model so deeply. Their work ethic and operational efficiency provide timeless lessons for success in business and entrepreneurship. Sometimes the greatest messages of strength, character, quality and perseverance come from the most unlikely places. The men in white are in many ways role models for the next generation of workers.



Uday Bansal attended the KWHS Global Young Leaders Academy at Wharton this summer and visited Phillies baseball stadium.
Uday Bansal attended the KWHS Global Young Leaders Academy at Wharton this summer and visited Phillies baseball stadium.

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Conversation Starters

How would you describe the dabbawala brand? What makes this business model so compelling? Why do you think they believe that “error is horror?”

Who is Dr. Pawan Agrawal and why is he important to this story? How is he connected to the dabbawalas? Use the related links in the toolbar to the right of this article to find out more about him.

Does this story interest you? Why or why not? Do you have a similar business-related idea that inspires you? Share it in the Comments section of this article.

Select three lessons about business that you learned from the dabbawalas and share them with a partner.

8 comments on “A Student Draws Inspiration from the Dabbawalas of Mumbai

  1. The Dabbawala brand is a very interesting/successful idea mainly because, its less of an hassle for the husband to carry his own food to the office, meaning less stress n worry. It uses the tradition of their there wife’s providing food for there husbands as an affection of love. what make’s this unique is how determined these workers are to make sure it arrives on time, as the article states they have an error rate of 1 in every 16 million transactions. There company does a great job handling there employees, especially when they had a strike and they settled the problem by hearing there needs and providing it.

    • I agree the idea the Dabbawala delivering food to you it’s really cool. What i found most interesting though was the story about the husband and wife fighting and how the Dabbawala helped put them back together and the quote “That’s why I believe that we dabbawalas don’t carry just food. At times we also carry love.” i thought was very inspiring.

  2. 1. The Dabbawala brand is a very unique and special type of food delivery service, because it allows the client to have home cooked food from his wife/her husband, while working in their office without creating a hassle for both.This is also a beautiful example of commitment to work. These Dabbawalas do not stop working, they only take a twenty minute break (if their schedule allows it), and they show passion and honor in their work. I feel that the compelling element of the Dabbawala business model is the task they handle so efficiently and with such pride. Just think about the sheer size of Mumbai, the massive population, and the traffic/chaos that occurs every day. They are so devoted that even if a train leaves much earlier than it was supposed to, and they are late, they hold themselves responsible. That is pure commitment and passion towards a persons work. The principle error is horror is very important to the Dabbawalas, because food is a very important part of daily life in India. Making someone food shows love, affection, and caring towards the person, so by making a mistake with a persons food, they could potentially harm someones relationship.

  3. Thank you for another essential article. Where else could anyone get that kind of information in such a complete way of writing? I have a presentation incoming week, and I am on the lookout for such information. Maiyem.net/

  4. I find the logistics of the dabbawala really intriguing because, without any technology, the Dabbawalas make one error in 6 million transactions. In comparison, a $5B manufacturing company who employ the best graduates could be spending $500K per month only fixing the transaction error.
    This is why I find this concept is so motivating. I remember the Bollywood film ” Lunch Box” was also based on the dabbawalas. It’s interesting to see how people all over India are now adopting this concept too, pivoting the distribution channels based on the demand. Sreejith initiated this concept in Thiruvananthapuram in the form of a mobile application. In only a month 100 people avail of this service. The app- ‘ Vova Dabbawala’ delivers lunch to the customer in three-layered thermos carriers. The pickup points of Dabbawalas is based on pin code and can we contacted through their number or the app. This positioning and the use of the app is helping the service to penetrate and tap into a new market of the college students.

    • Very interesting, Navya! Thank you for providing more insight into the Dabbawalas, especially expanding on the app approach. I appreciated learning something new about the Dabbawala business structure and the tech that is improving this age-old service.

  5. “The men in white are in many ways role models for the next generation of workers”

    As a 12-year-old living in the city of Mumbai, I had seen these so-called men in white. One of the only certainties of my one year stay in India was the arrival of a Dabbawala at our bungalow at precisely 8 am in the morning. Even in the harshest of conditions, when the local train system has come to standstill, you were certain to see a Dabbawala standing at your door. I was fascinated when I saw that an esteemed institute like Wharton feature a story about the resilience and success of the “lifeline of Mumbai”.

    In many ways, the story of the Dabbawalas is a scaled down version of the intricate and advanced supply chain system that many global conglomerates employ. The modern corporation, which has been able to spread its distribution networks throughout the world, has been able to do so with advanced technology and an access to a plethora of resources. Whether it be Amazon’s new drone delivery system, or Walmart’s armada of trucks that sprawl throughout the heartland of the United states, it is undeniable that modern companies use their size completely to their advantage. The mystery then arrives of how an army of mostly uneducated deliverymen were able to create a distribution system, throughout the bustling metropolis of Mumbai, that is able to contest the effectivity of the networks of multibillion-dollar corporations. The answer boils down to an impeccable work ethic that leads to a nearly infallible system. The “20-minute lunch breaks” that the Dabbawalas take are a far cry from the far more relaxed break system found in Western countries. This dedication to excellence is proven by the 99.999999% effectivity that they have been able to achieve. While this is undoubtably impressive, it should be noted that this is quite frankly required for the survival of the Dabbawals business. While companies like Amazon, with a near monopoly status, can afford mistakes, the selling point of the Dabbawala is their accuracy. If these dedicated deliverymen began to misplace “tiffins” for their clients, many customers would simply seek an alternative. What is also incredibly fascinating about the Dabbawalas is the level of compartmentalization that they have been able to achieve. Uday writes that there are many squads of Dabbawals spread out all over Mumbai, each lead by a leader called a “mukadam”. These squads eliminate the bureaucratic hassle of a single leader orchestrating the complicated routes of each Dabbawala across the city. They are reminiscent of local chapters or franchises of large companies which make management easier on a local level. What required many companies millions of dollars to organize, the Dabawallas were able to do with little to no centralization.

    While the network that the Dabawallas created is beyond incredible, the steps toward integrating more elements of social entrepreneurship to their model shows a level of maturity that multi-national corporations are only now picking up on. The whole idea of social entrepreneurship revolves around the concept that companies and enterprises should give back to the communities that are responsible for raising them up in the first place. In a day where capitalism is criticized as a system that utilizes human greed to exploit the masses, social entrepreneurship is a way to show that massive companies are capable of using their wealth for the good of man. Two things should be noted about this emergence of social entrepreneurship in many Western companies. One is that this trend only really emerged after companies were branded as robber barons, who only took from society and didn’t pay their fair share. Many companies participate in activities that benefit society because it produces a positive image of their brand to the public. The other thing that must not be forgotten is that with the massive amount of cash flow that many Western companies receive, donating a small portion of that profit back to the benefit of humanity is a fee that is relatively meager. The Dabbawalas have dedicated themselves to not only provide a necessary service to thousands of people, but also to give back to the underprivileged in their communities. Programs like “Share My Dabba” and “Roti Bank’ are just two initiatives in which the Dabbawalas use their advanced network to service their community. The whole concept that “The customer is always right” is a slogan that Dabbawalas have wholeheartedly embraced, as a positive customer relationship is a necessity for the survival of their business.

    In more ways than one, the Dabbawalas serve as a perfect microcosm for how business should be operated. Their dedication to their work and their communities are unparalleled. The quote that I chose is important to me because it highlights the positive traits of the people that many people in my home country of India take granted for. It is likely that many early proponents of the free market system, such as Hayek and Mises, would see the success of the Dabbawalas as a testament to the importance of entrepreneurship. It is true that large corporations have wider spread networks than the Dabbawalas and have a more educated workforce. However, unlike many other companies/businesses, Dabbawalas have been successful in ingraining themselves as a respected and valued element of the people that they serve.

  6. After reading this article, I have come to the conclusion that the Dabbawala brand is a very interesting and successful idea. This is because it uses the tradition of their wives providing food for their husbands as an affection of love. This is what makes this idea unique as it shows how determined these workers are to make sure it arrives on time, as the article states they have an error rate of 1 in every 16 million transactions. Moreover, Dr. Pawan Agrawal is an international motivational speaker and a self-made man. Dr. Agrawal’s thesis for his Ph.D. degree is titled A Study of Logistics and Supply Chain Management of Dabbawalas in Mumbai.

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