India’s Flipkart to cart deliveries with “Dabbawallas”

In an unusual experiment in just-in-time logistics, Flipkart, often described as the “Amazon of India”, is launching a tie-up with the city’s network of bicycle-riding deliverymen, dabbawalahs, who ferry roughly 130,000 lunch boxes up and down India’s financial capital each day.

A dabbawalah (one who carries a box) is a person in India, most commonly in Mumbai, who is part of a delivery system that collects hot food in lunch boxes from the residences of workers in the late morning, delivers the lunches to the workplace utilizing various modes of transport, predominantly bicycles and the railway trains, and returns the empty boxes to the customer’s residence that afternoon. They are also made use of by prominent meal suppliers in Mumbai where they ferry ready, cooked meals from central kitchens to the customers and back.

Using a complex pyramid structure, the dabbawallas are organised into teams of 20, collecting lunch boxes, sorting them by destination and then loading them on to Mumbai’s trains. Each tiffin box changes hands several times before arriving at its destination. The system, which uses codes of numbers, letters, symbols and colours, has been likened to a “six sigma” process, a management term for a method with fewer than 3.4 errors per million.


Like other online retailers, Flipkart allows customers the option to pay cash on delivery of purchase, but initially dabbawalas will only be used for pre-paid orders.

In Mumbai, most office-goers prefer to eat home-cooked food rather than eat outside, usually for reasons of taste and hygiene, hence the concept. A number of work-from-home women also supply such home-cooked meals, delivering through the dabbawala network.

From next week, a change in the 120 year old tradition is to take place- for the dabbawalah’s will be seen dropping into Flipkart’s distribution centres to pick up things right from books to toys, apart from collecting lunches.

Flipkart said the dabbawalas had undergone training at the company’s delivery centres and would start with a paper-based tracking system, moving on to apps and wearable technology. Launched in 2007, Flipkart now has 30 million registered users and has attracted billions of dollars of investment as it tries to dominate the sector.

Sharanya Bharathwaj