None of them have heard of Henry Fayol, father of Modern Management nor has anyone of them gone to any business school. Still most of them are masters of ‘Supply Chain Management’—management of materials in a supply chain to provide the highest degree of customer satisfaction at the lowest possible cost. They work closely with supply chain partners to coordinate order generation, order taking and order fulfilment. These are the men and women who cook lunch or “tiffin” each day from fresh ingredients and deliver them in boxes to offices throughout Dhaka.
They are the tiffin-wallas of Dhaka.
“Efficient organisation” is not the first thing that comes to mind in Bangladesh when someone thinks of management. To appreciate Bangladeshi efficiency at its best, watch the tiffin-wallahs at work.
They operate with incredible accuracy. “If I make two mistakes a month, no one would use my service,” says Salam, who operates from his rented house in Mugda, Kamlapur. Salam came to Dhaka from his village in Barisal 16 years ago. After working as a waiter at a restaurant in Gulistan for two years, he decided to start his own business. Every day he feeds about 125 people working in offices in Motijheel and Baitul Mokarram area. Here, banks, insurance companies and venture capitalists have their offices; and numerous employees have their lunches provided by someone like Salam.
So what is his business strategy?
Common sense and a set of values based on the moral virtues of hard work and diligence.
“It’s a very sociable job,” says Salam with a smile. “I like the fact that I meet so many people every day.”
Lunch usually consists of rice, daal, a vegetable dish and fish or meat in a plastic container consisting of a number of bowls, each containing a separate dish, held together in a frame. After the lunch boxes are packed up, they are put in plastic bags each of which can hold 30 such boxes, and then taken to the destination between 12:30 to 1:00 pm by a rickshaw or a cycle van where they are sorted according to the destination. The charge for his extraordinary service is just Tk 45 or about 50 cents a meal, enough for Salam to make a living, send his two daughters to school and pay each of his two employees Tk 4,500 every month.
Two minutes before 1 pm, Mohammad Ferdous, an executive at a capital management company in the Motijheel commercial area keeps looking at his watch; he is hungry and waiting for lunch. With impeccable timing, the doorbell rings. A young boy about 10 years of age wearing shorts and T-shirt steps inside. It is Raihan, the ever-reliable lunch delivery boy for Ferdous and his colleagues. Raihan collects the packed lunch boxes in a bag and carries them all the way to the 14th floor by an elevator five days a week for Tk 3,000 a month. He works for Mohammad Amin, who supplies lunches to about 80 people daily out of his kitchen in Shegun Bagicha. Raihan is saving money to go back to school to finish his primary education. “I want to be a businessman when I grow up,” says Raihan.
He then sets off on foot at incredible speed across Motijheel, Dhaka’s noisy business hub.
We try to follow him on a motorcycle. But within seconds, Raihan is gone: he has vanished through the scrum of rickshaws, past a derelict pavement piled high with garbage, beyond vehicles honking for apparently no good reason.
Back at the capital management office, Ferdous points out sagaciously. “In restaurants you don’t know what oil they use or how they prepare the food. You get sick. You can get all sorts of stomach problems if you eat street food.”
It is the precision of Raihan that keeps Ferdous and his colleagues well fed five days a week.
Raihan’s counterparts in Mumbai’s lunch delivery system have won international acclaim from Forbes magazine, which awarded the humble dabba-wallahs a Six Sigma performance rating, a term used in quality assurance if the percentage of correctness is 99.99966 or above. Forbes calculated that for every 6 million lunch boxes delivered, only one failed to arrive. Their business concepts and methods are taught at Harvard and they have been invited by the university to give a presentation on their management system. No mechanism to conduct a performance appraisal of the tiffin-wallas of Dhaka exists. Perhaps they are not far behind.
Around noon every business day, Pari Banu strides briskly along the sidewalk of Topkhana Road in the heart of Dhaka’s business district, into the six story building that serves as the head office of an IT firm and rides up to the 4th floor, where programmers in full sleeves peer over banks of blinking computers.
Women like Pari Banu see to it that many office workers of Dhaka can still have home-cooked meals personally delivered to their desks—without the inconvenience of having to carry meals to work themselves on rickshaws or overcrowded buses. And that too at bargain prices. She is one of thousands of tiffin-wallahs in this city (their exact number is not known), delivering lunches daily, at a cost of about Tk 800 or $10 a month.
Her business survives in a Dhaka that has the services of American fast-food outlets and jet-borne courier companies. But despite the apparently rudimentary appearance of the business, Pari Banu, who is illiterate, is part of an enterprise that demands levels of organisation, enterprise and ingenuity, not to mention back-breaking work that would put many so called modern businesses in the city, to shame.
At the heart of her enterprise is her capacity and willingness to develop, organise and manage her business along with associated risks in order to make a profit. By all accounts, her system is virtually fail-safe, aside from the sudden sickness of the carrier, her 15-year-old son Arif who quit his Madrassa to help with the family business. Asked when she last failed a customer, she scratches her head.
“Never, as far as I can recall,” Pari Banu says.
Along with her efficiency, she offers old-fashioned values. Once a week she gets feedback from her customers. Nothing motivates her more than when a customer tells her he or she liked the food.
“I tell my children to see to it that a customer never goes hungry.” She has 40 customers who work in various offices in Shegun Bagicha and Paltan area.
A native of Barisal, she came to Dhaka 15 years ago in order to give her seven children a better life. She married three of her six daughters off and bought a small paan shop for her husband who is physically challenged.
When it comes to buying fish, meat or vegetables, Pari Banu likes to go to the market every morning and get them fresh. “My son does not know how to haggle. The vendors take him for a ride.”
Once the fresh produce and the meat or fish are in, it’s go time for her three daughters. Inside her kitchen, job responsibilities of her three daughters are well-defined. Iti cooks meat, a task she does best. Her elder sister cooks vegetables and daal and the youngest one is in charge of cooking the rice. And of course, Pari Banu supervises everything and checks on them continuously to see if things are going as scheduled. “A delay of 15 minutes may lead to a loss of a customer. My business is a fight against time,” says Pari Banu. Once the food is cooked, it is quickly put in small plastic boxes and taken onto an awaiting rickshaw or a cycle van.
When it rains, it gets a bit difficult to deliver the food. With the hike in prices, business is dwindling. But she still manages to pay Tk 12,000 as rent for her apartment in Shegun Bagicha, send one daughter to college and feed her family. Her only problem is that her business does not generate any reinvestible surplus.
Shahidul Islam, a programme coordinator in an NGO in Dhanmodi has been getting meals from the same tiffin-wallah for the last three years. “It is only because of them that I am alive today. I have an ulcer. I will not survive even for a month if I eat at hotels.” He is highly impressed by the quality of food and their professionalism. He depends on his tiffin-wallah for both lunch and dinner. In the past three years they have never been late and they have always delivered. Shahidul who is also a rising poet wants to compose a poem about the lives of the tiffin-wallahs.
Mohammad Abdul Hai, 50, used to sell tea at a bank in Motijheel area 22 years ago. One day a couple of bachelor officers from the bank suggested that he cook for them. What started out as an experiment turned out to be an enterprise responsible for feeding around 350 people lunch and supper every day. He is the proud father of two boys one of whom has graduated in Business Studies from Stamford University and now works in a well-reputed company. Hai supplies food to several Motijheel banks and a mobile phone market in the Paltan area. He charges Tk 40 a meal.
When he is at work in his Tk 19,000-a-month kitchen behind the Reporters’ Unity in Shegun Bagicha, supervising his six employees and telling them what to do, he looks like a seasoned chef in a busy restaurant. He gets up at sunrise and goes to the local market to buy fresh produce and fish and meat at wholesale prices. Hai says it is important to have a balance among three things: cost, overhead and profit. “Too much of any of the three, and the business ends up being a horrible mess.”
At first sight, he may appear to be a little too harsh to his employees. But a closer look will reveal that while communicating, he eliminates any ambiguity, is extremely direct, and doesn’t have the time to take the other person’s feelings into account. Why such strictness? “If an employee is not paying attention to what he is doing, my customers are going to get a bad meal. In my business, reputation is everything,” says Hai.
These entrepreneurs of this informal sector have a lot of potential and their business has a huge market. Many of them could use small loans to expand their business and enjoy the economies of scale. Training programmes may be organised to educate them on hygiene, nutrition and quality control. Forming an association would serve well to give them a platform to raise their concerns and be heard. A group of them may be sent to Mumbai to learn from the experiences of their famous counterparts. Many students living in residential colleges and universities in Dhaka crave for wholesome food at affordable prices. Compared to many hotels and restaurants in the capital, the health standards maintained by the tiffin-wallahs are not bad. With a little help, their business can grow to become an industry as good as the one in Mumbai. Pari Banu who feeds 40 people everyday, is not afraid of taking risks. She appreciates the independence her job has provided her. A true entrepreneur at heart, she dreams of a better future for her children. “If I can get a small loan, I will be able to expand my business and send my children back to school,” says pari Banu wistfully.