The driving force behind these pioneering food delivery apps in India: housewives

Cash from the kitchen.
Cash from the kitchen.
Image: Rebecca Hobson
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Mamta Kathuria is cooking dal makhani and egg curry, but she hopes to cook some Maharashtrian dishes soon, once she’s in more of a routine. The 45-year-old lives with her husband in Dakshinpuri, one of New Delhi’s poorer neighbourhoods, and works as a “home chef.”

She is one of 120 women registered with Million Kitchen, a Delhi-based app, which like a dozen or so other platforms, repositions housewives as chefs by connecting them to busy professionals hungry for homemade cooking.

With her depressed husband unemployed for four years, two children in higher education, including a recently married daughter, the Rs10,000 per month Kathuria earns from cooking is a welcome respite from the treadmill of low-paid, irregular jobs she was doing before. “My life has only improved,” said Kathuria.

In June 2015, Vimlendu Jha founded Million Kitchen as a social enterprise to help women like Kathuria. Already an established social entrepreneur (Swechha, Green the Gap Collective), Jha’s goal is to create a “Tinder of food” that helps housewives earn a living.

“Historically, this [cooking] skill is under-acknowledged and never accounted for in any economic calculation or GDP. We want to flip this and turn it into an identity provider—and a livelihood option for women.” said Jha. “If all goes well, we will be in Delhi, Gurgaon and Goa in one year, and have approximately 3,000 women registered with us.”

While just 15% of urban Indian women are in declared work, growing numbers of women already work as undeclared domestic servants who cook and clean. This work is often poorly low-paid and irregular, and provides no labour rights to such women, Preet Rustagi, professor and joint director at the Institute for Human Development, a non-profit institution based in New Delhi, told the Conversation.

Apps like Million Kitchen, Fromahome, Cyberchef, Meal Tango, Yummy Kitchen, Bite Club, Once Upon My Kitchen and a handful more are now trying to address this.

The supply and demand for the business appear solid enough; most of India’s 240 million plus housewives cook daily, while alarming rates of diabetes and obesity have fuelled a demand for healthier alternatives to restaurants and fast food. Despite the upbeat outlook, this business isn’t an easy one to get into, and a quick Google search brings up numerous obsolete home-chef sites.

“It’s logistics,” claimed Mohamed Jamal, CEO of India’s largest home-chef site, Watscooking.com, which has 3,180 home chefs based in 30 locations across India. Originally a software engineer, Jamal co-founded his not-for-profit business in February 2015 to do something “actually useful in the community, using the internet and e-commerce space.”

On why some services have failed, Jamal said: “Most of the other companies followed companies like Food Panda and took responsibility for collecting the food and providing it to the end user.”

“The complication lies in the many to many delivery points—it’s not from a single source and you’ll have to collect from many people and deliver to the end customer,” Jamal explained, “… the cost of operations is very high.”

Instead, Watscooking.com leaves the delivery options to its home chefs to sort out, which many do via partnerships with rickshaw drivers and family members. Now the team concentrates on providing an automated platform through which women (and men) can register their services, upload images and sell their dishes completely free of charge.

When an order for a dish comes through, the chef receives an automated text notifying them of the delivery. All payments are made on delivery and the customer can even contact the chef directly, taking the transaction offline if they prefer. Earnings for chefs fall between Rs5,000 and Rs40,000 per month.

The model seems to work; there are currently 6,000 to 8,000 transactions a month, and Jamal said the business is growing by 30% per month. Once the platform reaches 5,000 sellers, Jamal plans to monetise it through a mix of advertising, premium subscriptions and food events.

Of the chefs using the platform, over 50% are homemakers from the urban middle classes who want to earn some extra income said Jamal, while around 20% rely on it as their sole household income—and around the same number are from severely disadvantaged backgrounds.

These women can register over the phone with a member of the Watscooking customer services team, making the site accessible irrespective of literacy, or access to a computer or smartphone. Quality control, meanwhile, is ensured via an initial visit to the chef’s kitchen and regular spot checks.

Enabling women from the lower end of the socio-economic scale to use these services has “huge potential,” Rustagi said.

“During studies we’ve been doing, among the poorest of the poor, we have women telling us that [cooking] is the one thing we know—and that’s something we do at home. So if you find a market for it, that would be great for us,’” Rustagi added.

Some of the factors preventing middle-class women from working, however, are different, and include a mix of social norms, family responsibilities and to some extent a fear of being in public spaces—“particularly for middle-class women in cities like Delhi. They fear they will endure all kinds of attention and even violence,” said Rustagi.

Rustagi believes these factors have contributed to an employment U-curve across India. At one end of the scale is a survival-based employment rate of 17% among those with little to no education, and at the other end an employment rate of 31% among those with a higher education. Somewhere between the two lies the medium educated middle classes, who suffer the lowest work participation rate of all at 14%.

In some ways, 30-year-old Dolun Majumdar falls into this middle bracket. Despite a diploma in nutrition and childcare, she hadn’t worked since her son was born seven years ago. But now that he’s at school, Majumdar still prefers to work part-time as a home chef through Million Kitchen so that she’s home when he returns.

She earns around Rs9,000 a month. It’s a useful supplement to her husband’s salary, but not a necessity. She spent her last pay-cheque on presents for her parents, husband and a trip to the beauty parlour. More importantly, her financial independence gives her enormous confidence: “So much so, I can’t put it in to words,” she said.

Surely that’s a welcome incentive to order a takeaway.

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