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It is a low-tech, high-volume service that has Western business management experts flocking to the crowded, dusty streets of Mumbai. Each weekday, the Tiffin delivery network provides hot, home-cooked meals to a growing population of office workers in India’s financial capital. From the city’s outer suburbs to the bustling downtown core, the small, aluminum boxes are transported, sorted and delivered – to over 200,000 customers, for less than $10 per month. No easy feat – and one made all the more remarkable by the statistics. For every 6 million deliveries, there is – on average – only one misplaced meal. It’s this honed precision that is drawing worldwide attention from business schools, financial media outlets, and curious CEO’s – but there’s more to Tiffin that just great numbers.
The network itself is a long-standing cultural tradition, created in 1880 while the country was still under British rule. Many British residents, commuting into the city, weren’t interested in consuming the local fare, while Indian citizens weren’t able to afford the daily cost of lunchtime dining. So Tiffin, old English for light lunch, was born – providing a welcomed, low-cost service for finicky eaters, or – as is more often the case today – ensuring that those with strict religious dietary beliefs can enjoy a well-prepared meal, worry-free. Each day, a courier would collect prepared meals from the customer’s home for lunchtime delivery at their workplace. It was a unique solution that has now become part of the city’s daily heartbeat – with a customer base that continues to expand between 5 – 10% annually.
Mumbai Lunch on Wheels
The daily delivery – and precision – of the network relies on a small army of mostly-illiterate, uneducated peasants from the country’s Pune region, called dabbawallas. Each morning, the 5,000 dabbawallas are dispatched on their routes via bicycle, visiting each customer’s home to pick up their food-laden tiffin. The tiffins (alternatively, called dabbas) are then transported to the local train station, where they are divided up according to the painted symbols adorning the containers. The color-coded system acts as an indicator of precise destination – to the building – and recipient, and as a marker of where the emptied box will be delivered after lunch. On an average day, each tiffin is re-sorted at various points on the route up to 4 times before delivery – and then again as the box is returned to its original destination later in the afternoon.
The success of the entire enterprise rests squarely on the shoulders of the dabbawallas – and it is a responsibility they approach with utmost seriousness. Each tiffin must be picked up, sorted, transported and delivered according to a highly precise schedule – while contending with inclement weather, bustling city streets, and strict train schedules. With little exception, dabbawallas are chosen if they have a friend or relative who is already in the service to ensure than new hires are trust-worthy and capable of meeting the substantial requirements of the job. Additionally, a new dabbawalla must also contribute a small sum to pay for two bicycles, a transport crate and their uniform and cap.
For over a century, the Tiffin network’s tried and tested low-tech methods have provided hot meals to the office workers of Mumbai with unmatched accuracy. Relying on the abilities and dedication of its couriers, it is a highly-choreographed, immaculately precise system. And with their track record, it’s no wonder that the Western world is finally taking notes.
‘Gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.’
- John Wesley
It is a fitting maxim for America’s first billionaire and the founder of one of the country’s oldest major philanthropic organizations, the Rockefeller Foundation. Industrialist, robber baron, monopolist or mankind’s greatest benefactor – history has not yet passed its verdict on Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller. However, his legacy remains one that has inspired countless others in generations since – not the least of which is a new flock of the wealthy elite who are following his footsteps. ‘Big Business’ is not often a phrase used with kindness, but today’s industry leaders are adopting his generous spirit in providing for the future – and proving that corporate giving and compassion are not mutually exclusive.
Inspired by the writings of Andrew Carnegie, Rockefeller set the wheels in motion for what is today one of the most well-respected and influential private foundations in the world. Founded in 1913 in New York State, the Foundation’s mission was ‘to promote the well-being of mankind throughout the world.’ In the near-century since its inception, more than $14 billion has been awarded to grantees around the world – ushering in extraordinary advances in medical science, education, and public health initiatives.
Judith Rodin and Judy Woodruff on Bloomberg TV
Education was a crucial focus of the Foundation, in support of their belief that every person – regardless of ‘race, sex or creed’ – has the right to a quality education. (Prior to the Foundation, Rockefeller’s General Education Board was instrumental in supporting black schools in the American South – and for providing the funding necessary to establish Spelman College, an institute of higher-learning for African-American women in Atlanta.) Large contributions were also awarded to Harvard, Yale and Johns Hopkins University, which used the funds to form the world’s first School of Hygiene and Public Health.
The Foundation’s support of the American medical research community helped to establish the country as a world leader in the field – but their influence, and financial backing, would also provide support for other countries as well. Over $25 million in grants were used to build public health schools in 21 countries and provide fellowships for scholars to pursue post-doctoral studies at the world’s leading institutions. Furthering their commitment to public health, the Foundation initiated a globe-spanning virus research program in 1950, resulting in significant advancements in treatments and the identification of hundreds of previously-unknown viruses.
For nearly a hundred years, the Foundation has provided vital funding to scholars, researchers, educators, artists, and others – affecting the lives of millions across generations. And while their work continues with the same dedication and focus, there are now others who are heeding the Rockefeller call to service – using their enormous wealth to initiate change on every level. Upon his death, Warren Buffett has pledged the majority of his fortune to charitable organizations. CNN’s Ted Turner gifted $1 billion to the United Nations. And the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, established by the Microsoft founder, has pledged (in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation) $150 million to fight hunger in Africa through the development of improved agricultural practices. It is an extraordinary legacy, at any price.
Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett is buying into the future, by investing in the past – but don’t confuse his latest acquisition for an eccentric billionaire’s bid on nostalgia. There’s more going on here than meets the eye. Buffett, one of the world’s most successful investors, isn’t an eccentric – having proven his near-uncanny financial savvy even in the midst of an ongoing, worldwide recession. While it may seem counter-intuitive on the surface, Berkshire’s new (as of early November) ownership of railroad giant Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNI) could ignite renewed investor confidence in the American economy – and jump-start a renaissance of one of the country’s most historic icons.
At $26 billion, the purchase of the 131-year old, Fort Worth-based company marks the largest single acquisition in Berkshire Hathaway history – but for those that follow the minutiae of the Oracle of Omaha’s investment philosophies, this latest development is not wholly unexpected. In a widely-read October ’08 Op-Ed piece for the New York Times, Buffett couched his reflections of the financial crisis with a simple, two sentence maxim – ‘Buy American. I am.’ And it’s hard to get more American than a railroad investment. Rail transportation was an essential player in the late 1800′s push to settle the Western states, and although it has fallen out of vogue in the century since (due to the public embrace of automobiles and aviation), it still plays a crucial role in transporting goods across the country.
Coal, auto parts, consumer goods, agricultural and industrial products carried by rail add up to over 25% of the yearly US freight haul – a number that Buffett expects to rise in future decades as public demand for more cost-effective, environmentally-conscious business practices increases. Freight by rail offers numerous green benefits over other transport methods, such as the ubiquitous 18-wheel trucks now commonly used. Able to travel up to 470 miles on a single gallon of diesel, one freight train can supplant 280 trucks on the country’s highways – reducing our dependence on oil as a primary transportation energy source. This latest move proves that much like his investment in electric car company BYD, Buffett is banking on a green future.
But it’s not all philanthropy – railroads may be an eco-responsible solution to a potential energy crisis, but the purchase of BNI is a sound business maneuver as well. Much like Buffet, BNI has proven their resilience in a down market – reducing labor costs and total expenses (cut by nearly 1/3 in the last quarter) as the demand for freight dropped, while simultaneously investing in developing new technologies to improve the speed and efficiency of their fleet. These conservative management tactics have carried the company through the recession with a minimum of damage, putting them at an advantage when the economy rebounds.
“Never invest in a company you don’t understand.”
- Warren Buffett
For most mid-Western residents, the railroad is as much a part of everyday life as the miles upon miles of farm land. From the Union Pacific headquarters in Omaha, to the busy freight depots of St. Louis and Chicago, it’s hard to get anywhere without crossing the tracks. Given the visibility, it’s only a wonder that this type of large-scale investment hasn’t happened sooner (something that even Buffett finds puzzling). Rail may not have the market appeal of new tech start-ups or celebrity-endorsed automobiles, but Berkshire Hathaway isn’t interested in a flash in the pan. Buffett predicts steady growth over decades, not years – an example of his belief in stable, reliable long-term investments. By ‘buying in the trough’, Buffett is showing confidence in the future of the country’s economy – a move that will hopefully inspire other investors that the worst recession in recent memory is finally coming to an end.
Before oil, gas, coal, hydroelectric and nuclear power – there was wind. It advanced the spread of civilization – by powering the sailing vessels of the earliest explorers and once settled, enabling them to efficiently irrigate their fields and mill their harvests. To our ancestors, wind must have appeared to be a coy mistress – capable of progressing our terrestrial mastery of the natural world, or with little warning, able to completely wipe all traces of our work off the land. Thousands of years after our first attempts at harnessing earth’s most available source of power, it is no small surprise that we still remain in awe of its strength and unsure of how – or even if – we can appropriate this natural resource to meet our global population’s growing hunger for energy.
Make no mistake – the economic and efficient utilization of wind power could be a watershed moment for the renewable energies industry. It is abundant, potent, clean, emits no harmful greenhouse gases – and is readily available to anyone who has the technological know-how to access it. And therein lies the catch. Capturing the wind is a catch-22 of staggering proportions. We know where it is and how strong it is – but as yet, no one has created a truly feasible solution that will bring the power up there, down here. At least, not to the extent we would need to replace our centuries-old reliance on fossil fuels. Not yet, anyway.
New Wind Turbine Design
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t people who are willing to try. Wind Energy Systems Technology (WEST) is a Texas-based company that retrofits decommissioned offshore oil platforms into wind farms. Covering nearly 85,000 acres off the coast of Galveston, WEST takes advantages of the Gulf Coast region’s powerful ocean wind currents which blow the strongest during the hottest hours of the day. (Energy demand – and therefore energy prices, are at their peak at the same times.) Fitted with gigantic turbines, the platforms within the wind farm could generate enough electricity to power 45,000 homes. The utilization of existing infrastructure enables WEST to keep their overhead costs low – a key challenge facing many of their new-energy peers.
For other companies, the renewable future requires going up – way up. Although mid-desert wind farms in California and a growing number of offshore farms are able to generate modest amounts of electricity, there is still a greater source of power currently untapped – high-altitude winds. Atmospheric research has shown that at altitudes between 1,600 and 40,000 feet there is enough energy to potentially power the globe. Unlike the winds encountered at sea level, high-altitude winds are much stronger, energy dense and less prone to fluctuations. Several kite-like prototypes have been developed that would transmit the electricity to the earth by way of a tether, but there are still significant challenges to face before they become airborne. Most importantly, our current electrical grid is unequipped to handle the pressures of an all-wind energy source – with fluctuating spans of high-wattage blasts, followed by minutes, or even hours, of dead calm.
Despite it’s promise, wind power is not yet the silver bullet its proponents make it out to be. Significant investments in upgrading infrastructure and in developing more efficient technologies to harness its force will be the deciding factors in whether or not this renewable energy source will power the homes of tomorrow. But with the necessary technological advancements and the adoption of other sustainable energy practices, we may yet realize the power of the wind.
Consider it an unforeseen consequence of our rapidly advancing ability to control the elements of our natural world – phosphorus, a key building block for life, is facing a shortage. Used as a key component in the production of fertilizer, it may not have the star power of other prized elements (such as gold, silver, or platinum) but considering how crucial it is in providing the world’s food supply, the ramifications of a global phosphorus shortage could be disastrous for life as we currently know it.
Prized by the agricultural industry for its ability to rapidly boost plant production – phosphorus is also an essential element in the creation of DNA, RNA and cell membranes. As our global population grows, the demand for phosphorus is also increasing. From biofuels to the meat industry, crops are being grown at a rate that is unsustainable in the not-very-long term. Without significant changes to current practices, our reserves could deplete within a century. And unlike other commodities (like oil), there is no replacement for phosphorus.
In the natural cycle, rain releases phosphorus from rocks into the soil where it enables plant production and enters the food chain, eventually emerging as waste. Prior to the creation of fertilizer, farmers used both animal and human waste to grow their crops, and phosphorus was replaced to the soil at roughly the same rate it was removed. Today, as the population grows and agricultural methods have adapted to meet this increased demand, phosphorus isn’t being returned to the soil. Instead it is leached from the earth through run-off and diverted into lakes, streams and eventually the ocean. (Additionally, phosphorus is released in human waste. In many developed countries, this waste is also diverted to bodies of water with a minimum of treatment.) Once there, phosphorus creates large blooms of cyanobacteria (blue algae) that starve fish and aquatic plant life of oxygen. These blooms result in ‘dead zones’, responsible for the decreased output of fisheries.
The Phosphorous Cycle
Our planet is a closed system – so while the phosphorus remains, it settles into marine sediments that we have no way of mining. It is, for all intents and purposes, lost to us. But we have the ability to slow – or potentially stop – this depletion. Adopting sustainable agriculture practices such as no-till farming will limit erosion, keeping more of the element in the soil. Additionally, recycling human, animal, and organic waste for use as fertilizers will decrease pressure on our limited supply. (Potentially, phosphorus could be extracted from urine – but due to the high levels of toxic metals found in our plumbing systems, the cost to do so is – as yet – too high to be attractive to industry.)
It sounds dire – and it is. But like most of the environmental problems we are facing today, there are methods to reverse the damage done. From technological advances in phosphorous mining, allowing us to access reserves that are currently unavailable, to improving waste recycling – it is only up to us to demand change. Or future generations will pay a high cost for our ignorance.