Social enterprise lessons from Mumbai

NB: This article first appeared in the Guardian on 5 April 2013 and it can be found here

Recently I was invited to Mumbai by Young Indians to address the inaugural Commonwealth Asia Alliance for Young Entrepreneurs summit on behalf of Young Brits and the G20 Young Entrepreneurs Alliance. During my time in the city I got to visit some remarkable micro enterprises and meet some quite amazing social entrepreneurs. I wanted to share two of the lessons I learnt from these individuals, who from the outside seem to have the odds stacked against them, but all share a will, determination and ultimately a desire to bring about a real change.

From the moment you step off the plane you are hit by it, your senses are over powered by it and you will not escape it. It pulls you in and wraps you up. In a word, it’s ‘enterprise’.

Enterprise is everywhere, from stall sellers in the airport to the cabbies pitching for your business outside, the street sellers trying to get you to buy anything from leather jackets to balloons and the street food sellers with a dazzling array of dishes. This is a city where business is not just a part of its being, it is its being.

With a population of over 24m, 7m using the trains everyday (slightly less than the population of Switzerland), 5.5m using the buses daily (roughly population of Denmark) and the equivalent of a third of the worlds population making a train journey every year, this city is busy. At first glance it might seem chaotic, but it is organised chaos, everyone knows what they are doing, where they are going and there is a very real sense of a want to create work, business and money from them and their families.

This was the first of two lessons I learnt; it is all about the family.

I spent a day in the worlds most densely populated slum Dharavi, which sits in the centre of Mumbai, it houses over a million people and it wasn’t what I expected. It was safe, the people living there were welcoming and rather than there being a feeling of depression everyone I met was aiming to create a better life for them and their families. And by family I mean it in the widest possible sense.

Communities working together, creating a degree of financial independence through enterprise. In Dharavi alone there are over 10,000 businesses operating in sectors like leather, pottery and recycling. I came across larger business outside of Dharavi outsourcing the production of chapati’s to women within Dharavi, this not only provided a small income, but crucially it gave women a degree of buying power and therefor equality within the family unit.

And then there was the emphasis on education. The young children in Dharavi were immaculately turned out attending daily classes on English to math’s. Education was seen as a key way out, with the people I met seeing community enterprise as vital in helping their children to a brighter future.

Isn’t this what true social enterprise really is? Helping each other, providing support and opportunity for all, creating a better future for yourself, your children and the wider community.

There was no hiding away from it, life in Dharavi is tough, extremely tough, it left me with a lasting impression of how lucky we are. But what I did see was that through a community spirit that delivers practical solutions brought about by enterprise, there was a glimmer of hope.

My second lesson is taken from Mumbai’s world renowned dabbawalas.

So who are the dabbawalas? They transport home cooked food in dabbas (tiffins) from the homes of people who work in the city to their offices and back again. On a daily bases they move over 400,000 dabbas and have over 200,000 customers. The really interesting thing about the dabbawalas is two fold. First, they have no formal education, they are from poor backgrounds and they are recruited as dabbawalas to provide them with a skill and a career. Second, they use no form of telecommunication or IT system. It is all done by a coding system on the lid of the dabbas.

Now here is the amazing thing, they have an error rate of one in 16 million deliveries!

So why have I picked the dabbawalas as a lesson? They have been operating for 122 years, have a work force of over 5,000 people, operate a very flat structure with their board still doing deliveries and all pay is equal. So everyone is dependent on each other. Also every dabbawala is able to negotiate with their customer on the price point per delivery. They are trusted to be truthful and honest, to share all their earnings and negotiate sensibly.

It is an enterprise which has been answering a social problem for over a 100 years, they have been giving career opportunities to those in society with little or no education. And they have done this by trusting their work force and giving them real financial responsibility.

The lessons I learned in Mumbai where basic. But we often seem to forget the basics. We either focus on the next ‘big thing’ or we say it is up to someone else to sort out. Whereas it is actually up to us all to make a better future for ourselves, our families and our communities, be they local or far.

I recently said ‘all businesses will be social enterprises’ but I don’t think I got it quite right. All businesses need to be, but we all must be more social in our outlook. What I saw in Dharavi and with the dabbawalas shows what I feel is the true essence of social enterprise, delivering real change through communities and individuals addressing some of the countries toughest challenges. This is something we can learn from Mumbai. A collective responsibility and a shared awareness that will help make society better for all.

Written by Alex Mitchell

I am the Founder of Causarma, a strategy and campaigns agency that is focused on Enterprise, Youth and Sport. I am also the Founder of Kit Us Out, a charity supporting Para Athletes from developing nations through the provision of key kit and equipment. I am the current Chair of the IoD 99, a network of high growth young entrepreneurs. I am also VP of the Confederation of Young Entrepreneurs, a network for Founders across Europe focused on Scale up Growth You can follow me on Twitter (www.twitter.com/AlexDEMitchell) and Instagram (www.instagram.com/AlexDEMitchell

One comment

  1. Amazing insights on Mumbai, I am glad you get to know about the Dabbawalas. There’s a great movie on Mumbai Dabbawalas I would recommend you to watch “The Lunchbox”.

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