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Dabbawallahs Use Web and Text to Make Lunch on Time

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY 

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

Resources 

  • The New York Times has an excellent slideshow of the dabbawallahs at work: Click here to view 
  • The official website of the dabbawallahs: http://www.mydabbawala.com/

“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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ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2022

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Web 2.0 to the Rescue! Using Web and Text to Beat Shortages in Africa

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

The beep-beep of a received text on a mobile phone is now becoming a much-needed lifeline to Africans. Zimbabweans, who continue to struggle every day with inflation that has shot to 3,731 percent (Zimbabwe Central Statistical Office), have usd African ingenuity and 21st century technology to survive another day.

New website services have become a literal lifeline for millions suffering from economic and social hardships. At least four new web-based services have stepped in to link expatriate Zimbabweans working outside the country with their relatives back home. All share a common service: people can log into the websites and shop and select what they like to purchase or transfer to their relativs. Once a purchase has been made, a message is sent by mobile phone text to Zimbabwe, either transferring money credits or credits for fuel, food or medical services.

Mukuru.com is the most elaborate and ambitious of the services, and is expanding across Africa (currently in Zimbabwe and South Africa, it is expanding to Kenya, Malawi and Zambia). Started in 2006, it now boasts 8,000 customers and is averaging 1,200 orders per month, ranging from money transfers to fuel and digital satellite television subscriptions. A voucher number sent by mobile phone also allows the recipient to swap a PIN (personal identification) number for coupons redeemable at certain garages.

One of the great advantages of this new technology is its ability to give real-time updates and tracking throughout the transaction. Senders are informed about every stage of the transaction, right up until the gas is gushing into the car’s tank.

“Basically anybody who is able to work will do their best to support family back home,” said Mukuru’s UK-based Nix Davies. “Mukuru’s birth is the result of our inability to sit back and watch, as well as the desperate need to help those back home. The power of an instant SMS being able to provide value to its recipient is inspiring.

“Launching Mukuru.com has not been without its hurdles,” continues Davies. “Promoting a brand with one foot in the first world and having to deal with third world inconsistencies is always challenging.” Mukuru also has plans to expand into travel, freight, mail (letters are printed out and sent within Zimbabwe), and music to help local musicians.

Over at another website, Zimbuyer.com, expatriate Zimbabweans can buy groceries for their relatives at home and make sure that the money is not spent on the wrong thing.
“They’re a lot of people who left Zimbabwe and, for example, have left their children over there,” a spokesman told the BBC’s website. “But sometimes the money they have sent home for the care of the children is diverted into other things. With our service, people buy the stuff – and we deliver them to the recipients so they know what they’re buying.”

Zimbuyer’s website is similar to food shopping websites in developed countries. Prices are listed in British pounds, but the food items are Zimbabwean staples like sadza maize, Cashel Valley Baked Beans and Ingrame Camphor Cream – all delivered to people living in Harare, Chitungwiza and Bulawayo.Zimbuyer’s most popular products are cooking oil and sugar, while “power generators are proving popular because the electricity always goes off nearly every day.”

Another service is Zimland.com, which has a network of 52 supermarkets nationwide. As it starkly boasts on its website, it gives Zimbabweans abroad “a quick and efficient way of ensuring their families do not starve in Zimbabwe.”

The Zimland Superstore offers a variety of hampers of food and essentials for families, from the Madirativhange to the Mafidhlongo to the Hotch Potch Delux, and boys and girls ‘Back to School’ hampers.

Yet another service has taken on the problem of paying for medical and health services. Beepee Medical Services allows Zimbabweans to pay for doctors’ appointments, prescription drugs and surgery for relatives.

Launched in September 2006 by Dr Brighton Chireka and his wife Prisca, a nurse, the business is small but growing.

“Mostly we’re running it as a service to help people,” said Dr Chireka, adding he gets about two consultation bookings a day (US $30 an appointment). “It should be able to pay for itself… We’ve employed people who are working full-time in Zimbabwe. This side (the UK), it’s on a part-time basis to answer the calls.”

Please visit the following link for more information:

An up-to-date report from The Economist magazine on the country situation in Zimbabwe: www.economist.com

Published: November 2008

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This work is licensed under a
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ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2022

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

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

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 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bangalore), redBus (redbus.in) 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) (tie.org) – 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.

Resources

1) IDiscoverIndia: A website detailing how to explore India’s vast bus network.Website: http://www.idiscoverindia.com/Travel_Info/india_travel_bus.html

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: tie.org

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ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2021

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Texting For Cheaper Marketplace Food With SokoText

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

New UNOSSC banner Dev Cha 2013

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY 

An international group of graduate-social entrepreneurs from the London School of Economics (LSE) is pioneering a way to reduce food prices in Kenya using mobile phones.

Answering a call to action to address global food insecurity by the Hult Prize (hultprize.org), the team members looked at how they could make food cheaper for urban slum dwellers.

The Hult Prize, funded by Swedish educational entrepreneur and billionaire, Bertil Hult, is a start-up accelerator for budding young social entrepreneurs emerging from the world’s universities. The winner receives US $1 million and mentorship to make their idea become real.

SokoText (sokotext.com) (soko means market in Swahili) uses SMS (short message service) messages from mobile phones to empower vegetable sellers and kiosk owners in slums when it comes to bargaining the price for wholesale fresh produce. SokoText makes it possible for them to benefit from bulk prices by pooling their orders together every day. Usually vendors lack the funds to buy in bulk and have to make numerous time-consuming trips to the centre of Nairobi to buy stock.

SokoText reduces the price of fresh produce by 20 per cent for kiosk owners by buying the produce earlier in the supply chain. SokoText then delivers the food to a wholesale outlet at the entrance to the slum.

This approach makes available a wider range of produce and reduces the price. And best of all, it will knock down prices for the poorest people and enable them to buy more food and better quality food.

The team behind SokoText come from a variety of countries – Colombia, Canada, Kenya, Britain and Germany.

Hatched at the LSE, the enterprise prototyped its service in Mathare Valley, Nairobi, Kenya for four weeks during the summer of 2013 with 27 users and began the second phase of testing in November 2013, working with a local NGO, Community Transformers (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Community-Transformers-kenya/119937408165671).

According to SokoText, slum dwellers spend on average 60 per cent of their daily budget on food.

Mobile phones can be transformative since they are now a common communications tool, even in slums.

On the SokoText website, respected blogger and commentator on technology in Africa, Erik Hersman (http://whiteafrican.com/about/), calls it “a fantastic low-tech approach that could really scale for decreasing the inefficiencies in urban slum markets.”

SokoText’s 21-year-old co-founder and chief executive, Suraj Gudka, explained the genesis of the project to news and technology in Africa website, 140Friday.com.

“From our research, the Mama Mboga (small-scale vegetable retailers) spend between 150 and 200 Kenyan shillings (US $1.70 and US $2.3) daily, about 25 per cent of her revenue, to buy her stock, and since they do not buy in bulk they [she] get their goods at a higher price.”

Getting the market traders to cooperate is very difficult, Gudka found, because competition is fierce and trust is low. SokoText sees itself as a solution to this situation. By encouraging bulk buying by way of the SMS text service, there is no need to build trust between the traders before the produce is purchased.

“To use our service, the interested retailers would be required to send us an SMS every evening detailing what they need,” said Gudka, “and then we will source the produce and they come pick it up from us the next morning. In this way they do not have to incur the additional costs of transporting their goods and it also saves them time.”

SokoText is being incubated at the Nailab (nailab.co.ke) in Nairobi, a startup accelerator that offers a three to 12 month entrepreneurship program, with a focus on growing innovative technology-driven ideas.

SokoText’s summer pilot test confirmed taking the orders can work but found getting the product to the market in time was difficult.

The next step will be to set up a presence in the Mathare slum.

“We will be selling about seven to 10 different kinds of produce, and from our calculations, according to our projections for how much the Mama Mbogas buy every day, we hope to get  40-50 customers within three months,” Gudka said.

Resources

1) SokoText: The website explains further how the service works. Website: sokotext.com

2) Hult Prize: The Hult Prize Foundation is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to launching the world’s next wave of social entrepreneurs. It encourages the world’s brightest business minds to compete in teams to solve the planet’s biggest challenges with innovative ideas for sustainable start-up enterprises. Annual Hult Prize winners can make their ideas reality with the help of US $1 million in seed funding. Website: hultprize.org

3) White African: Where Africa and Technology Collide! Website: http://whiteafrican.com/about/

4) Nailab: Nailab (Nairobi Incubation Lab) is a startup accelerator that offers an entrepreneurship program focusing on growing innovative technology driven ideas. This is done through providing business advice, technical training and support, professional mentoring and coaching, giving access to market and fostering strategic partnerships as well as linking them to investors. Website: nailab.co.ke

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

Published: December 2013

Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator.  

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SokoText co-founder Sofia Zab (left). She oversees SokoText’s marketing strategy and manages SokoText’s technology products.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2021