Prince Charles invited them to attend his wedding with Camilla Parker Bowles. They run a six-sigma operation just like Motorola and GE, but without any IT support. Their business model is a case study at the Harvard Business School and IIMs. Now India's top operator Bharti Airtel is tying up with them to spread its reach in the country's financial capital. They are Mumbai's dabbawallahs (tiffin carriers), the lifeline for lakhs of office-goers in the busy megalopolis.
Airtel has partnered with the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Trust, the dabbawallahs association, to sell its pre-paid cards, new connections and bundled handsets, sources told ET.
White-clad dabbawallahs touch nearly 2 lakh households and 70 local stations as they carry home cooked food for office-goers and school kids across Mumbai. Bharti is looking at using their reach to expand its user base. With hectic work schedules, users who don't have the time to step out of office can easily buy a recharge voucher or a new connection from a dabbawallah, who visits them on all weekdays.
An Airtel official refused to comment. Association's president Raghunath Medge said the tie-up would provide nearly 5,000 dabbawallahs of Mumbai an additional source of revenue. "We will get Rs 250 on every new subscriber we bring to Airtel," he told ET.
The tie-up is yet another attempt by the telecom operators to increase their reach in Mumbai. Some like AV Birla's Idea Cellular are already selling vouchers through dhabas (eateries) along the highways of Haryana. Some others are using village panchayats to sell their telecom products and services. India is adding more than 6 million mobile users every month and telecom firms are all going all out to tap every available distribution channel in the scramble for market share. The dabbawallahs will provide the registration form to prospective customers and collect the filled forms.
Airtel dealers will collect it from dabbawallahs and complete the transaction. "We will just provide the lead to dealers, who will do the follow up. Our men are neither too educated nor have the time to go through the form. Dealers will take over after we collect the form," said Mr Medge.
They will also get commission on the sale of pre-paid vouchers. "A part of this commission will go to the dabbawallahs' trust," said sources. Every dabbawallah contributes Rs 15 per month from his earnings to this trust, which also runs a website besides taking orders on mobiles. The dabbawallah tradition dates back to late sixties and is very unique to this city that seems to work non-stop.
Long hours of travel, congested trains mean residents depend upon this group for their daily meal. Over the years, the dabbawallahs have worked out a system of transporting thousands of tiffin-boxes from one end of the city to its destination with unerring accuracy. In doing so, they have established connections of lakhs of families, a reach that is the envy of many a savvy corporate.
Almost every dabbawalah in the group is a Maharashtrian and they follow the "Warkari" tradition, where a member wears a Tulsi Mala and commits himself to an austere lifestyle. They are known for their honesty and true gentlemanly behaviour. Every year each one of them would make a trip to Pandharpur, in the month of Ashadh/Shravan to pay respects to Lord Vithal and revive their pledge to the group.
While the move will definitely provide more visibility to brand Airtel in Mumbai, it will also increase the earnings of dabbawallahs, which is around Rs 4,500 to Rs 5,000 per month. Airtel currently has over 17 lakh users in Mumbai, where Reliance Communications, Hutchison Essar, BPL Mobile, MTNL and Tata Teleservices also offer services. Hutch is the market leader in Mumbai with nearly 24 lakh users.
In June last year, the world's biggest handset firm Nokia too had roped in dabbawallahs for its "Defend your turf" campaign, a global branding exercise in which the dabbawallahs played football with "Boys from Brazil".