No technology but highly sociable

The natural surroundings around the kampung house remained unchanged and the conditions stayed the same over the years despite the alleged weather shift resulting from the hole in the ozone layer; it was still scorching hot and the dryness of the air stifling during the afternoons.

What have clearly changed were the residents clustered inside the baking hot zinc roof dwelling. Instead of playing congkak or learning more about each other, laptops were flipped opened to Facebook about their ‘melting status’; iPhones were tweeting about the latest traffic congestions along the expressways; BlackBerrys were frantically messaging friends for location of air-conditioned cafes serving ice-blended mocha in nearby towns.

Thus, it is not surprising to read a recent report’s finding that Malaysians were the heaviest users of social networking tools in the world. With an average of 233 friends in their social network (Brazilians and Americans came in second and third respectively with 231 and 178), almost two thirds of Malaysians log on to the Internet at least once a month spending an average of nine hours each week. If we had to visit our kampungs more often in a year, these figures will definitely shoot up very quickly!

Judging from this growing trend, it is understandable why business advocators and management writers are increasing their call for entrepreneurs to embrace technology and online social media tools to reach out to their customers.

With facilities such as social commerce – customers can buy your products over Facebook and telling their friends about it – and group buying – which encourages further discounts if friends ‘group’ together to buy from you – expected to take off next year, entrepreneurs that do not take advantage of these tools would likely find themselves losing out to their competitors.

As I sat on the creaking swing enjoying a slight respite from the sweltering heat (not to mention the arguably damaging radiation from the hordes of wireless devices inside the house). I found myself thinking about whether it was possible to still run a business without the use of technology.

I recalled reading in a local daily about India’s amazing dabbawala lunch delivery system. Literally meaning ‘person with a box’ and common in the cities of Mumbai and Karachi, a dabbawala’s primary business is collecting the freshly cooked food in lunch boxes from the residences of the office workers (mostly in the suburbs), delivering it to their respective workplaces, and returning back the empty boxes by using various modes of transport.

The success of the system depends on teamwork and time management by the illiterate and barefoot men in an extensive delivery chain with no formal documentation system in place. Using a simple colour coding technique that doubles as an ID system for the destination and recipient, more than 200,000 lunches get moved every day by an estimated 5,000 dabbawalas, all with astonishing punctuality that records only one mistake in every 16 million deliveries.

A dabbawala – each of them ferry about 40 tiffin boxes balanced over their heads or pushed around in hand-carts – is required to invest a minimum capital in the form of two bicycles, a wooden crate for the tiffin boxes, white cotton kurta and a white Nehru cap. The return-on-investment for these entrepreneurs is from the division of the monthly earnings collected from each unit. The 125-year-old business model, which continues to grow at a rate of 5-10% annually in India, may just be the answer for our fast-food craving employees who could do with an injection of healthy home-cooked food.

Over at one of the neighbour’s home, a small group of housewives had gathered around a min-van selling fresh vegetables and various staple groceries. I later learned that the Chinese uncle had been dutifully serving the kampung community for the last 30 years without the use of a computerised inventory system, has no mobile phone ordering services and obviously no online website.

Each morning, he purchases fresh groceries from the wholesale market; go on his daily rounds with the rickety mini-van around the all-too-familiar estate; parks at the front and calls out the individual names of his customers; wraps up the goods and records the transaction in his head if not paid for in cash.

Yet, the unassuming entrepreneur has been operating the business successfully and shows no sign of embracing technology for his enterprise. The little exposure he has to the power of social media tools would likely be from what he reads from the daily newspaper that is delivered to him by a fellow kampung resident who has been industriously running his motorcycle-operated business using the faithful ‘555’ book in his shirt pocket to keep track of monthly billings.

While these business owners have found a way to sustain their operations without relying on computerisation and technology, at the same time, they have also shown to us that having more gadgets may not necessary make us more sociable in the kampung.

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