​India's Flipkart hooks up with Dabbawalas for last-mile delivery

Dabbawalas have been feeding Mumbai's population for decades. Now, they will deliver their packages.

India is a place where the traditional often rests comfortably alongside the modern, where alternative, cheaper, and more efficient ways of figuring out solutions to problems are a way of life. So, it shouldn't come as a huge surprise that Flipkart, India's leading e-tailer, has hooked up with one of the most enduring icons of reliability and service in Mumbai: The Dabbawala.

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Dabbawalas cater to the Mumbai office worker's fixation with eating fresh, home-cooked meals during lunchtime. Many Indians are fastidious when it comes to hewing to dietary restrictions (those who are from the Jain community, for instance, do not eat below-the-ground veggies or tubers, such as onions, potatoes, or even perhaps the most widely used of substances in India, garlic). For others, the concept of purity is sacrosanct. And even if Indians don't subscribe to any kind of religious dietary doctrine, many simply don't trust hygiene levels at many of the eating joints that proliferate. So getting food from one's own trusted kitchen is a priority.

But there's the rub. For many who live in the suburbs and leave at an unearthly hour in the morning in order to make it to work on time via traffic-clogged roads and trains, there exists no option of taking a hot meal along with them. Enter the Dabbawala, who swings by the house a few hours after the office worker has departed and picks up a "tiffin" (or lunch) box from the cook, who has subsequently arrived and just finished whipping up a meal. Then, using bicycles, the suburban train system, and handcarts, and armed with an intricate coding system, the largely illiterate Dabbawalas deliver 200,000 lunches with pinpoint accuracy to office workers dispersed all over Mumbai -- one of the most congested cities in the world today.

Here's a short film I did on them many years ago with the short-lived flyp camera.

Not surprisingly, the Dabbawala has shot to fame over the last decade or so, and is now an international superstar, with case studies written about the community at the Harvard Business School, amongst other places. The six sigma level of accuracy -- which means only one mistake in 6 million deliveries -- has made the world sit up and notice them, underscoring the notion that business excellence does not necessarily inhabit only corporate boardrooms or managers' cubicles.

Consequently, Flipkart's brainwave has been that there is a supply chain marvel sitting under its nose for it to harness. In a pilot program, all last-mile Flipkart deliveries will be made by the Dabbawalas, who will collect shipments from delivery hubs and deposit them at customers' residences while going about their normal business of collecting dabbas.

"This association is an effort to explore newer delivery channels and opportunities by partnering with this unique community of experts," the company said in a statement.

For the original supply chain kings of India, this could be the beginning of greater things in the oncoming Indian e-commerce avalanche.