A kickstart to empowerment

Hey Deedee has trained 2,800 women from low-income families in Mumbai to work as last-mile delivery agents for e-commerce companies. It plans to scale this up to 10,000 next year

March 17, 2017 01:12 am | Updated 01:12 am IST

Mumbai: The next time you see a woman at your door, carrying the book or gadget you booked online, don’t be taken aback. For a year now, an army of 2,800 women has been trained to be last-mile delivery agents for e-commerce websites and city businesses. Hey Deedee, which trains the women, is looking to increase the number of delivery agents to 10,000 in Mumbai this year.

Revathi Roy, social entrepreneur, began Hey Deedee in March 2016 to tap into the opportunity provided by the rapidly-growing ecommerce world while reducing gender disparity. “It is the first female-only delivery service in the country, so we do not have competition to worry about,” says Ms. Roy.

Her work as a social entrepreneur, now roughly a decade long, combines several of her interests: driving cars, working for women’s empowerment, and doing this through good business ideas. To begin with, she got women taxi drivers on to the road; her next step was, why not address the need of a growing e-commerce industry for good delivery agents, and train women, at the same time. In 2007, she started India’s – and Asia’s – first female-only fleet cab service, ForShe. In 2010, she co-founded a similar service, Viira Cabs. For her work with ForShe, she was conferred with the NITI Aayog ‘Women Transforming India’ Award.

A few months after she started Hey Deedee, she found support from Jagdish Gothi, who comes from a family of retailers. He joined as financial partner. “Hey Deedee started with just an idea and my own savings. But I found Jagdish very soon, who liked the concept and was ready to invest,” says Ms. Roy. The chance to move toward gender parity was enough to sell to Mr. Gothi. While he provides the financial expertise, Ms. Roy takes the business decisions.

Training the delivery girls

The training process for these women delivery agents is 45 days long: a week in the Hey Deedee classroom on two-wheeler driving, and then 30 days of driving practice on the roads. The last week of training is given by whichever company the agents will deliver for.

The training facility is in Worli, and on-road training takes place at one of six locations in the city: Dadar, Ghatkopar, Kala Chowkie, Vikhroli, Bhandup and Worli. Two scooters have been loaned by Mahindra and Mahindra for training. When they begin delivery, the riders need to put down a small down payment and then acquire a two-wheeler.

Komal Naik (19), one of the youngest delivery agents with Hey Deedee, has been working with E-Comm Express for the past six months. “I finished Class XII and then started this training. I work every day except Sunday. It feels good to do my own work, especially something so different,” she says.

For the six trainers with Hey Deedee, life is hectic but fun. Swati Gaware, one of the trainers, says she works most weekends, and takes a shorter lunch break, so she can train more people every day.

Ms. Gaware got involved with the organisation after seeing a friend’s post on Facebook. “The ad talked about Hey Deedee and said they were going to train women to ride scooters and deliver parcels,” she said. “I immediately called my friend and asked, how can I join?”

Ms. Gaware has always been passionate about driving, both two-wheelers and cars. When she was between 18 and 19, she bought herself a scooter, and the following year, a second-hand Maruti 800. Her grandmother worked as a domestic help in Bandra; her mother is a housewife; her father, a retired MTNL linesman. This is her first job after college – she holds an arts degree. “In college, I used to always see male couriers, and think, I have a vehicle, why can’t I also be a delivery agent. I saw ads in newspapers too, but when I applied I was always told, ‘we don’t take girls.’ I wondered why women can’t do certain things – why, whenever I moved towards the driver’s seat, it was always assumed I would sit in the back instead.”

Ms. Gaware trains between 15 and 16 women every day, and uses her own scooter to do it. “Many of the women who are riders with Hey Deedee come from poor families. They aren’t literate, and do not have other jobs – they can’t work in offices. It feels great that we are all working in jobs where we’re not required to wash utensils or clothes,” she says. She trains women as young as 19 and some older than 50: Hey Deedee has no age limit.

Future plans

Hey Deedee aims to grow the number of businesses signed up with them and to spread to other cities in Maharashtra such Nashik, Nagpur and Pune. “In order to increase the number of women delivery persons, we will continue to work closely with Anganwadi workers, BMC Community Development Officers and community leaders, and non-government organisations to mobilise more women and increase the number of women who sign up for our training,” says Ms. Kavita Chandekar, Mobilisation Head at Hey Deedee.

Hey Deedee is also a vocational training partner with the Maharashtra State Skill Development Society, and they have also tied up with the Ministry of Women and Child Development, which helps in recruiting women riders.

“There is no excuse not to work for women’s empowerment,” says Ms. Roy. “If one is talking of wanting to have a better life and increase the GDP of the country, this not even possible without urban women workforce participation,” says Ms. Roy.

Empowering urban women

Although she describes her efforts as primarily business-oriented, it also has an intrinsic gendered significance. “It was difficult to get investment in 2007 because people said, ‘they are women, so how can we invest in them.’ There was the sense that unmarried women when they get married will move away from the workforce and cannot be a long-term resource. Women themselves often told me that unless they bear children, they feel incomplete; their in-laws call them infertile. These might not be truths we want to hear but they are truths, even in urban areas, and especially in lower-income households.”

Ms. Roy believes in working through this. “I eat, sleep, breathe, and dream women’s empowerment,” she says. “My passion and long-term goal is to contribute to India’s GDP by ensuring women get the chance to contribute. The expansion of Hey Deedee is the most immediate step. I will never stop looking for new steps and new opportunities.”

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