Going Mobile: Indian Women Cook Up Independence

In this guest edition of The Interview, Nilanjana Sen talks to Pankaj Sharma, founder and CEO of Zeemlo.

In India, companies such as Zeemlo are using the culture of feeding people to design a unique model to empower housewives. Using the culture of hospitality as a business idea, however, is often connected with a class structure and gendered outlook.

Pankaj Sharma is the founder and CEO of Zeemlo, a mobile app that provides homemade food primarily for middle-class, working professionals. His exposure to the work of social organizations encouraged him to start a company that helps tackle the lack of financial independence among women in India.

In this guest edition of The Interview, Nilanjana Sen talks to Sharma about the culture of hospitality in India, the role of housewives in middle-class families in Jaipur, and Zeemlo’s model for the empowerment of women.

Nilanjana Sen: What inspired you to start the company Zeemlo? Can you give us a glimpse of the idea behind it?

Pankaj Sharma: I completed an MCA in 2004 and, until 2010, I worked in the field of computer applications. I used to make websites and mobile applications and, in 2010, I decided to start my own company called Netleon Technologies Private Limited. Our clients were located mostly in the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom. While this company is still functional, in the past two years my involvement with the social activities of [different groups] encouraged me to start something of my own to tackle social problems, especially concerning women. I had noticed during my work with [social organizations] that people appreciated social work, but they were often hesitant to participate in it. I wanted to address the reasons behind their reluctance to participate in activities of social organizations.

While women contributed to the welfare of their families, their role in public life was constrained. This is not to say that women have not contributed to society. I wanted to address bigger concerns such as the identification of factors that limit their participation in the public sphere. I noticed that, in [different social groups], women were often encouraged to form their own organizations, but active participation of women always remained a major hurdle. Sometimes I felt that maybe our approach toward the problem was wrong, and on other occasions I put the blame on women who seemed unwilling to work for society.

Ultimately, however, I realized that empowerment of women had to be connected to money. So, I decided to devise a way to help women earn by serving others home-cooked meals. The aim is to instill confidence in them [so] they can be earning members of the family.

Apart from my association with [social organizations], the inspiration behind the idea also involved the example of Preeti Sharma, who is one of the directors of Zeemlo — along with Aditya Jain, a young businessman who loved the idea. Preeti is a multi-tasker. She manages the children, performs other household chores and she loves to cook for everyone. I noticed this about women in other middle-class households as well. Some women may not enjoy cooking as a daily chore, but others always appreciated a home-cooked meal made with love. I also observed that there is a huge demand for home-cooked food in the market. Young, working professionals have complained to me about being compelled to eat out because they can’t cook or don’t find time to cook.

Sen: How do you distinguish the model Zeemlo has adopted for the empowerment of women from other existing models in the market?

Sharma: People have already experimented with the idea of using the ability to cook to empower women. For instance, some have started tiffin centers to meet the growing demand of cooked food for working professionals and students. But tiffin centers come with their own set of challenges for women who cook. The reason why women hesitate to join the tiffin center services is the fear of being bound. The compulsion to cook every day and to cook a set meal which has to be delivered to specific people deters women from engaging with such work. Cooking for others then becomes a burden, and there isn’t much incentive to do additional work apart from their daily household chores.

For me, the task was to ensure that a woman does not feel bound to cook for people who are merely craving homemade food. I wanted to nurture a tradition of popularizing serving of home-cooked food without making women feel compelled to do so as a routine activity. I felt that the existing efforts made in this direction often failed. No one succeeded in providing people homemade food as a commercial enterprise while keeping the tradition of feeding as an art alive. The system of dabbawalla [tiffin carriers], as is prevalent in Mumbai, may be considered an exception as far as its popularity is concerned. The reasons for its success are varied: the organized nature of delivering the food; people’s familiarity with the system; and, most importantly, the assured demand for such a service in the city. In other parts of India, a similar model has not [been replicated] and, even if it has, the scale cannot be matched.

Deepika was awarded Best Chef. © Zeemlo

Recently, a company was set up in Ahmedabad which was providing home-cooked meals made by women across the city. The company failed because it did not have the logistics in place to ensure timely delivery of food. The designated time of two hours to supply the meals did not appeal to customers looking for quick, fresh and hygienic food. Also, its spread throughout Ahmedabad threw up additional challenges to ensure timely delivery and added cost.

In the past two years, I conducted a detailed study of the market and arrived at the following question and conclusion: Can we make a system wherein the lady cooks whenever she wants to and the food is delivered by an external actor depending on the time she finds convenient? We can have time slots for pick-up and delivery of food, but she decides her way around it. Can she serve the same food to the customers that she makes for her family? So, the conclusion I came to was that the supply of food in the market need not be based on demand alone. At Zeemlo, we have shifted the focus away from cooking in bulk for many people.

By December 2016, Zeemlo was fully functional, and we made an Android application in which there is an option to upload the dish that women have cooked. Our approach is that the woman should focus on cooking for [her] family and, if she wants to upload dishes on our application, then she should keep one or two extra plates. She is then expected to click a picture of the meal she has cooked, upload it and write a small description for potential buyers. The next option prompts her to decide the price for the dish. We have kept a basic minimum price for breakfast, lunch and dinner. After this step, she chooses the timing between which her food will be sold. We have put a restriction on the maximum number of plates which can be uploaded in one go and have limited it to three. The benefits of this [mean] there are less chances of food getting spoilt in case it is not sold and the risk of compromising on its quality is drastically reduced.

Once the image of the dish and its description are submitted, we approve it. Prior to joining the Zeemlo fraternity, we visit the kitchens in [people’s] houses to ensure that an acceptable level of hygiene is maintained. When we involve new women, we order the first dish to gauge the quality and taste of the food. We have also decided that as far as delivery and packaging of the food is concerned, this is entirely the responsibility of Zeemlo. As soon as we get the order, we send the delivery boy with the plates, which he gives to the woman who has cooked the meal. We do not give plates to the women in advance because we fear that early packaging can compromise the quality of the food. Once the food has been picked up, money is transferred to the person’s e-wallet every Monday.

Sen: What is the geographical reach of Zeemlo, and what are the factors that have shaped it?

Sharma: I had mentioned before that the model adopted by a company in Ahmedabad failed because it delivered the food in two hours. We have developed an alternative to delivering across Jaipur and instead have a local delivery system in place. By local delivery system I am referring to an area — for example, we have a place named Vaishalinagar in Jaipur which has around a lakh and half [150,000] people where there is demand for home-cooked meals. [And] we ensure that the buyer and the seller are from the same area. So, those who are in Vaishalinagar will only be able to see the option of food cooked by women of Vaishalinagar on the menu. We do this mainly to ensure that quality food is delivered in the least possible time. We have also chosen colonies where the buyer and seller meet regularly. In Vaishalinagar, there are companies where there is demand for home-cooked meals, and there are colonies nearby where middle-class and lower-middle-class families live. The women of the families are mostly housewives who are willing to use their expertise at cooking to accrue monetary benefits.

An important aspect of the model for Zeemlo was the analysis of the social profile of women who could be integrated within its framework. We have tried to target the lower-middle-class population of Indian women. I noticed that these women have a lot of free time at home to cook [and] there is a desire to earn money, and the hope that someone would provide them with the easiest solution to do so. These women are looking for external help to discover ways of earning.

In Jaipur, the lower-middle-class constitutes a major chunk of the population. Those who demand home-cooked food are, more often than not, from this class and so are those who sell the food.

We had done a survey by taking a sample of 1,000 [people] to find out how it could be done. The survey helped us find out how much people can spend on food, and whether women are willing to be part of an enterprise that will use their expertise for monetary purposes.

Another important feature of our model is that as soon as the three plates put up by a single person are sold, there is an option to upload new dishes which have to be different from the ones which were put up before. We do not allow the same food to be put up again. We cut 25 rupees (39 cents) on every dish offered. With this money we manage packaging, delivery and payment of taxes. Our expenses turn out to be much more but, by ensuring bulk sales, we manage with the available money.

Our pilot project for Zeemlo was started in Vaishalinagar. We first brought together women we knew and slowly expanded to users beyond our known circle of people. Today, we have more than 12,000 registered users and over 275 active chefs. We sell around 300 meals per day.

Sen: What is the mobilization strategy that has helped women participate willingly as members of the workforce through your start-up? Is your target audience primarily married women?

Sharma: Our survey helped us gauge the market accurately, but our decision to expand is also based on a demand expressed by women themselves who are well networked in the city. They want the application to be useful for their friends and other family members located in different parts of Jaipur. The initial mobilization happened primarily through word of mouth.

Latika is inspiring others to join. © Zeemlo

Sen: How have women reacted to Zeemlo, and what has been the involvement of their immediate family in their decision to participate as earning members of the household?

Sharma: There are women who are earning Rs5-6,000 ($77-93) per week. They end up earning around Rs20,000 per month and some earn more than this. As far as the feedback from women is concerned, some of them tell us that earlier they would go to three [kitty parties], but now they prefer working on something they enjoy and earning through it. There are husbands who have told us that their wives were [going through] depression and they feel much better today by becoming part of the workforce with such ease.

It is important to remember that these women might be from lower-middle-class families, but they are by no means financially deficient. There is no compulsion to work to contribute to the family’s income.

What we often forget is that women cannot be reduced to roles of being mothers and wives alone, and even if they are, they need to be appreciated for the contribution they make to their families. At Zeemlo, we make sure that we organize regular events aimed specifically at appreciating their efforts. They are constantly reminded that their work is not merely a transactional exercise tied to monetary benefits. We stress that they are keeping the culture of hospitality alive.

There are some cases where the husband has an income of Rs12,000 rupees, but his wife is earning anywhere between Rs14-18,000 sitting at home because of Zeemlo. When we organize events, there have been times when women have walked up to me and said that after marriage this is the first time someone has rewarded them on stage. Such moments are overwhelming for us because they make us realize that empowerment of women is a very complex concept, and it acquires a unique meaning for women depending on their location in the class hierarchy. There is a need to consider factors that deter women from participating in the workforce and identify factors that encourage them to participate willingly. Sometimes an initial hand-holding is appreciated by women as they make inroads into a new world of work outside of their homes. Our aim is to focus on a skill-set which women believe is their strength. At Zeemlo, we anchor on it to initiate their participation in the workforce rather than expecting them to learn new skills.

*[This interview was conducted in Hindi and translated to English by Nilanjana Sen. The article was updated on July 11, 2017.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Bartosz Hadyniak