Dabbawallahs Use Web and Text to Make Lunch on Time

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions


The developing world’s rapidly growing cities are bringing with them whole new ways of living and working. One rapidly expanding category of citizen is the office worker. A symbol of growing prosperity, the office worker also tends to be a time-poor person who often must commute large distances between home and workplace.

These long commutes mean that many workers have lost the old ability to go home for lunch. This has led to an expanding new field of business: catering to all these office workers’ appetites.

Every morning Mumbai’s legendary dabbawallahs (it means “box-carrier” or “lunchpail man”) fan out across the city to collect freshly prepared lunches from people’s homes and restaurants. They then efficiently use the transport network to quickly deliver lunches to the customers’ workplaces. Once just for the elite, the dabbawallah lunch has become the norm for Mumbai’s middle class office workers. Lunches are packed into small, metal tiffin boxes, ingeniously organized so each component of the meal is sealed in its own section and kept warm.

With a plethora of religious and cultural practices, Indians are particular about what they eat. In Mumbai there are 200,000 office workers receiving cooked lunches every day delivered straight to their desks. This is done by an army of 5,000 dabbawallahs. While their delivery accuracy was already impressive – only six deliveries in a million go astray – they realized they had to adapt to the city’s rapid changes. In addition to their network using trains, hand-carts and bicycles to get the lunches to desks, they have turned to the internet and mobile phone SMS text messaging to take orders.

It is a 125-year old industry that has grown at the rate of five to ten per cent a year and all are paid the same no matter what their function in the business.

With foreign direct investment into developing countries surging – according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), it rose by 12 per cent from 2005 to 2006 – the number of office workers is on the rise too.

The trend is especially pronounced in India, which is on track to overtake the United Kingdom as the world’s fifth largest economy by 2010, according to investment bankers Goldman Sachs.

India’s cities are booming. Mumbai is one of the top five global megacities as well as the world’s most crowded metropolis. The dabbawallahs are an excellent example of how a business can move with the times.

A key component in India’s new-found success has been a willingness to do things better and become more efficient; the key to this is often information technology. The new technology for the dabbawllahs has been built for them by software engineer Manish Tripathi – he has even been adopted as an honorary tiffinwallah.

“When people move to Mumbai for work, and need a lunchbox carrier, who do they ask?” he said. “They ask their friends, or their neighbour. Now, they just need to go to the website and they can find out how to get in touch with us. They can also get in touch with us via SMS.”

The move online has been a great success said Tripathi: “We get 10 to 15 enquiries more a day via SMS and the website.”

Raghunath Medge from the dabawallahs cooperative said they are also making money by selling advertising on table mats. They have also turned to being a health service: they distribute health advice, beginning with this year’s World AIDS Day. An “AIDS kit”, comprising a car calendar and fliers on testing and counseling tied neatly with a red ribbon, was distributed ahead of World AIDS Day December 1.

“The kit was attached to empty lunch boxes and delivered to about 100,000 clients’ homes,” said Raghunath Megde,

Targeting hungry office workers is a goldmine for others too: in Saigon, Vietnam, the Ben Thann restaurant capitalised on its proximity to an area with a fast-growing office worker population to increase its profits. “Since our restaurant began serving lunch for office workers our business has increased by 60 per cent. This increase in number of guests enjoying the new menu was the main reason for Ben Thanh’s decision to introduce a buffet lunch,” said Nguyen Thi Thu Thao, deputy manager of Ben Thanh Restaurant.

In the past, the dabawallahs were visited by Prince Charles and British entrepreneur multimillionaire Richard Branson, to study their working methods. It looks like this next round of innovation will equally grab the world’s attention.

Published: December 2007


  • The New York Times has an excellent slideshow of the dabbawallahs at work: Click here to view 
  • The official website of the dabbawallahs:

“I think you [David South] and the designer [Solveig Rolfsdottir] do great work and I enjoy Southern Innovator very much!” Ines Tofalo, Programme Specialist, United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation

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Help is at Hand for India’s Beleaguered Bus-riders

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions


The website is a simple affair: a distinctive logo sits above a lean-looking booking system that allows users to enter their journey start and end destination, date and then click for available buses and prices. Its simplicity is deceptive: redBus is a smart technological solution to a very complicated problem in India: booking and buying a bus ticket. The service it offers – relief from a chaotic, frustrating and time-consuming task – is transforming the experience of travel in India.

Based in India’s technology hub of Bangalore (, redBus ( is a web start-up begun by young whizzes from technology companies who decided to take a risk and venture out and do something new.

Back in 2005, redBus’ three founders, all graduates of one of India’s top engineering schools, were working in Bangalore for well-known information technology companies such as IBM, Texas Instruments and Honeywell.

As they tell the story on their website, it was the difficulty of getting a bus home during the Hindu religious festival of Diwali that prompted the inspiration. The trip was a last-minute decision, and buying bus tickets proved far from easy. On top of failing to get a ticket from various travel agents, journeying around Bangalore meant encountering the city’s traffic gridlock.

This experience led to the idea of developing a service to book bus tickets over the Internet.

RedBus quickly evolved into an innovative service offering multiple options to customers. They can call a phone number and speak to a customer service representative or use a mobile phone to book a ticket. RedBus claims to have sold more than 8,000,000 tickets to date.

Tickets are also delivered to customers in major cities in advance of their travel. Even more conveniently, redBus developed a service called mTicket. It sends the ticket by SMS (mobile phone text message) straight away when a customer makes a booking. The mTicket appears on the display screen of the mobile phone and the customer just has to show their mTicket to the driver to board the bus.

RedBus uses partnerships to expand their distribution network, and this means redBus tickets can be purchased at more than 75,000 outlets. The company now works with more than 350 bus operators, allowing customers to book tickets on more than 4,500 routes across India.

The service set out to achieve two goals: create a one-stop shop for ticket purchases, and to make it possible for customers to get tickets when they needed them and not be told they have been sold out.

Indians were already having success with booking airline tickets online. But nobody else had thought of doing central, online sales for bus tickets before.

Research was behind redBus’ success. The founders interviewed bus operators, consumers and venture capitalists before setting up the business.

They then set about writing the code for the Internet service and put together a business plan and presented it to The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE) ( – a network of mentors who help young entrepreneurs. With the support in place, they were able to leave their well-paying, secure jobs to start redBus.

Among the many challenges they faced was changing the mindset of bus operators used to dealing only with travel agents working out of sales offices.

It also took time for the concept to take off. But as word-of-mouth got around, more people started to use the website. The young team grew from just three to 50 within nine months.

Their business success, as they describe it, is the result of listening to, and soliciting feedback from their customers. They say it has helped them identify what is going wrong and fix it, and describe their business culture as “learn, implement, grow.” They also have a culture of sharing ideas and mistakes to encourage learning. It seems it is this buzzy, youthful and always-learning business culture that is behind redBus’ success.


1) IDiscoverIndia: A website detailing how to explore India’s vast bus network.Website:

2) TiE: Fostering Entrepreneurship Globally: The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE),was founded in 1992 in Silicon Valley by a group of successful entrepreneurs, corporate executives, and senior professionals with roots in the Indus region. TiE’s mission is to foster entrepreneurship globally through mentoring, networking, and education. Dedicated to the virtuous cycle of wealth creation and giving back to the community, TiE’s focus is on generating and nurturing our next generation of entrepreneurs. Website:

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Model City to Test the New Urbanism Concept in India

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions


India’s phenomenal economic growth rate – forecast to be 7.9 percent this year by the Asian Development Bank, after averaging 7.7 percent per year over the past decade – has been the force behind an expanding middle class population, now estimated at 50 million people (McKinsey). Forecasts see it swelling from 5 percent of the population to 40 percent by 2025.

India now boasts many fast-growing global companies and booming enterprise zones like the technology hub of Bangalore. But the country still comes in for heavy criticism of the way it has managed the growth of its cities. Poor planning and chaotic growth have left many cities with vast slum areas, congestion, poor hygiene and sanitation services, crumbling infrastructure and poor-quality transportation services. To more and more Indians it has become clear these factors are now serious impediments to economic growth and modernisation of the country and its economy.

With 30 percent of the population living in urban areas and cities contributing 60 percent of the country’s GDP and 90 percent of government revenues (Wall Street Journal), city-dwellers’ fate is critical to the functioning of the economy.

According to the 2001 Indian census, slums make up 25 percent of all housing, and 26 percent of urban households lack access to sanitation facilities.

And as the middle class grows and its members accumulate savings, their desire to be better housed will also grow. They will be on the hunt for new places to live to realise their dreams. Those who can satisfy this strong urge will be those who will also profit.

This is where the new city concept of Lavasa ( comes in. This new community sits nestled in picturesque mountains and features promenades, sidewalk cafes, and ice cream parlours, but none of the clichéd fixtures of today’s Indian cities: rickshaws, noise and pollution, poor sanitation and over-crowding. It has apartment houses in mustard, terra cotta, ochre, olive and beige. It is also going to have a medical campus, luxury hotels, boarding schools, sports academies, a golf course, a space camp, animation and film studios, software-development companies, biotech labs and law and architectural companies. A thoroughly ‘knowledge economy’ mix that India’s aspiring classes wish to see the country embrace for its future development.

The people behind Lavasa see it as a new model of governance and urban development for India in the 21st century.

Lavasa is located in Western Ghats, 200 kilometres southeast of Mumbai, India’s financial and entertainment capital, and 65 kilometres west of Pune, a centre for software programming and computer animation.

Lavasa’s colourful and detailed website boasts it as a “private hill city being developed by Lavasa Corporation Limited where people can live, work, learn and play in harmony with nature.” It’s billed as “an inclusive city, based on the principles of New Urbanism.”

The master plan is to house more than 300,000 people divided in to five linked towns.

The first town, Dasve, will be completed in 2011. Its houses are selling well and are almost sold out, according to its developers.

Lavasa is the concept of Ajit Gulabchand, chairman of Hindustan Construction Company, an Indian company with extensive experience building bridges and dams.

The development is located in the remote hills along the Varasgaon Lake, a reservoir providing water to Pune. Lavasa Hill City covers “25,000 acres with 60 Kms of lakefront” according to its website. The land had originally been designated for holiday homes, but this seemed too small an aspiration.
Lavasa will be governed by a private corporation. It is also being planned according to the principles of New Urbanism ( – a belief in cities built around walkability not cars, where business and residential sit side-by-side, with mixed income housing and lots of green space for parks.

The corporation will take responsibility for providing all major utilities: running water, electricity, sewage treatment, garbage collection and fibre optic connections.

This thoroughly modern approach has startled prospective buyers of homes, puzzled there weren’t water tanks on the roofs and septic tanks for each house: something they had come to expect with current Indian cities.

The Lavasa Corporation has hired an American city administrator, Scot Wrighton, to run the new city.

He told The Atlantic magazine that Lavasa offered him “a chance to build a new governance model for a country where governance at the municipal level does not work.”

The project seeks to exploit a portion of Maharashtra state law that lets corporations assume many of the responsibilities normally provided by, or in the domain of, the state. These do not include police powers or the ability to raise taxes but take in pretty much everything else.

Lavasa has private security guards to watch over its residents and funds itself through home sales, renting, and business deals. The prices for apartments in the development range between US $17,000 and US $36,000. While cheap by Western standards, this is still expensive to middle class Indians.

The project has come in for criticism for being just for the wealthy and being a pipe dream in chaotic India.

In response to criticism, Gulabchand is introducing cheaper apartments targeting young professionals and starter homes that he claims will rent for US $11 a month. This far lower monthly rent could make the development affordable for more people, including domestic servants and laborers.

Gulabchand admitted the plan was not without risks. “We’re worried we’ll still get slums,” he said. “Do we have all the answers yet? No. It is still an experiment, okay?”

As for charges the development doesn’t look much like the ‘real’ India, Gulabchand says: “Why should we look to the past? India is a young society.”

But Gulabchand doesn’t think India has the time to waste pondering these aesthetic questions: the country has a desperate need for better quality living conditions.

“We may not get a perfect Singapore-style model city,” he told The Atlantic. “But this is a model for a more vibrant, inclusive, greener place that still has soul.”


1) New documentary Urbanized gives a passionate over-view of the challenges facing the rapidly urbanizing world around us. Website:

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Boosting Tourism in India with Surfing Culture

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions


Tourism has experienced decades of growth and diversification and is now considered one of the fastest-growing economic sectors in the world. According to the UNWTO – the United Nations World Tourism Organization – modern tourism is “a key driver for socio-economic progress.”

The scale of global tourism means it rivals other sectors, such as oil exports, food products and automobiles in terms of economic clout. With such an important role to play in global commerce, it has become a top income source for developing countries in the global South.

International tourist arrivals grew by 4 per cent in 2012, reaching a record 1.035 billion worldwide (UNWTO). Emerging economies led the growth in tourism, with Asia and the Pacific showing the strongest gains. Tourism outpaced growth in the wider world economy in 2012, contributing US $2.1 trillion to global GDP and supporting 101 million jobs (WTTC).

“2012 saw continued economic volatility around the globe, particularly in the Eurozone. Yet international tourism managed to stay on course” said UNWTO Secretary-General Taleb Rifai. “The sector has shown its capacity to adjust to the changing market conditions and, although at a slightly more modest rate, is expected to continue expanding in 2013. Tourism is thus one of the pillars that should be supported by governments around the world as part of the solution to stimulating economic growth.”

One country that has found tourism becoming a key contributor to its national income is India. The country’s travel and tourism industry is now three times larger than its automotive manufacturing industry, and generates more jobs than chemical manufacturing, communications and the mining sector combined (World Travel and Tourism Council).

Indian Tourism Minister Subodh Kant Sahai called for the sector to create 25 million new jobs over the next five years and it is hoping to grow the market by 12 per cent by 2016 (The Economic Times).

Travel and tourism now contributes 6.7 billion rupees (US $124 million) – or 6.4 per cent – of the country’s total GDP (gross domestic product). The sector supports 39 million jobs directly and indirectly.

But competition for global tourist dollars is fierce. As more flight routes open up – Africa for example, is seeing new airlines and routes emerge every year – a person looking for somewhere to holiday has an ever-growing range of options to choose from. Will it be Africa this year, or shall we go to Asia?
One way to attract tourists and gain an extra edge in the global travel marketplace is to show imagination and innovation. Being different and novel can be the clincher for a tourist, especially one who is widely travelled and is searching for new experiences.

In Southern India, the state of Kerala is well known for its ayurvedic medicine ( and food tradition going back centuries, combined with its laid-back beach culture. It is a heady combination that successfully attracts many people, who come to relax and boost their health.
Now, Kerala is offering a new dimension to this experience: surfing. Surfing is a water sport involving a person riding ocean waves (, usually on a long board. India has enormous and mostly untapped potential as a surfing destination, with its hot weather and 7,000 kilometres of coastline.

Soul and Surf ( in Golden Beach, Varkala is within walking distance of the Varkala Cliff tourist area and an hour away from the closest major airport, Trivandrum International Airport.

The founders of Soul and Surf, Ed and Sofie Templeton, were captivated by “surfing warm, empty waves, eating wonderful fresh, cheap seafood, practicing yoga and receiving ayurvedic treatments”, according to their website.

“Enchanted by India’s magical, spiritual atmosphere, the warmth of the local people and the raw natural beauty of the area,” they set up a combined surfing and yoga retreat in 2010.

They have become part of a growing surfing scene in Kerala, and an increasing awareness in the country that its long ocean coastline is perfect for water sports.

As surfing grows in India, the owners wanted to create a business that supported the local area, particularly coastal fishing communities surrounding Varkala.

They have also expanded to run a luxury surf and yoga retreat in Sri Lanka and guided trips to the Andaman Islands.

Soul and Surf was inspired by the Surfing India Surf Ashram (, a 12-hour trip up the coast from Surf and Soul in Karnataka.

Their so-called “Surfing Swamis” have discovered the best places to surf in India and are spirited champions of the whole surfing lifestyle. A swami ( is a Hindu male religious teacher.
Surfing India promotes adventure sport in India and was started in 2004. At the time, surfing in India had a very low profile. Surfing India offers a sophisticated experience to travellers, including Wi-Fi Internet access, vegetarian food and all the equipment required.

All the staff are volunteers and work for room and board. Profits are plowed back into keeping the surf ashram going and helping its activities, which include adventure tours, a surf camp, surf school, yoga retreat, bodyboarding, snorkelling and wakeboarding.

The Surfing Swamis Foundation is a non-profit organization whose goal is to “teach surfing and environmental awareness to children, orphans, and handicapped persons of any age or gender.”

It also sponsors the All India Surf Team for boys and girls across India.


1) India Surf Festival: Taking place at the beginning of the year. Website:

2) A guide to the best places to surf in India. Website:

3) Surfing Federation of India. Website:

4) United Nations World Tourism Organization: The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) is the United Nations agency responsible for the promotion of responsible, sustainable and universally accessible tourism. Website:

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London Edit

31 July 2013

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