March was clearly a ‘month of mayhem’.
Priyath and I arrived after a lovely relaxed holiday and stepped into a country engulfed in fear, uncertainty, confusion, anger and many more bursting emotions and rabid anger all around us as never experienced before. The unexpected lock down created a pandemonium and people started running helter-skelter trying to stock food for the families. The fear of not eating seemed greater than fear of contracting Covid 19.
Rampant panic buying resulted in empty shelves in every store. Hoarding became a pastime for both the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. The country was obsessed with finding food!
Living in Panadura, with a highly connected and networked community, we were hardly in want. My immediate family had found all kinds of means to get food through back doors of small shops. Needless to say, most of it was by circumventing the prevailing lockdown laws!
The fact that we live in a large family compound helped this endless ‘food finding fiesta’ even more fascinating! It was a continuous “do you want this or do you want that” hysteria that engulfed me. Actually, I never wanted to stock too much, but Priyath was being a little paranoid. So we bought some additional stuff too, but hardly in excess.
While we were pretty self-sufficient with food, I realized that most of my own family and friends were searching for food sources with not much success. The big supermarkets were failing everybody.
My heart ached mostly for the daily wage earner, who could neither hoard nor buy even the daily essentials. Then there were the sick, who couldn’t access medicines. The situation was going from bad to worse and I couldn’t simply watch from the side lines and do nothing. That is just not me!
I reached out to some of the Local Government Members and even to a powerful ex-minister urging them to mobilise our ‘town’s troops’ to manage the situation in Panadura. Unfortunately, I was also feeling trapped as I was on self-isolation due to travel. As usual, the politicians had more excuses and apathy towards the situation than I could stomach.
That’s when I thought we should rise to the occasion the best way we could. My nephew and his wife who live in the same compound readily collaborated. Thus began our locked down adventure!
The first thing we did was to mobilise the immediate services that were within our reach. With the help of a friend, I created a few posts and shared on FaceBook and WhatsApp amongst groups connected to Panadura. Technology and social media were the only available tools to work with.
My attempt with these posts was merely to direct the households to the local vendors who were scrambling to serve the needy. Soon it transpired that these suppliers had switched off their mobile phones as the requests for goods were beyond their handling capacity. I was getting complaints. A ‘hot line’ for non-delivery of orders was not what I fancied being. I was feeling helpless too.
That’s when I decided to make this process more professional and streamlined by taking on the responsibility of providing the service of distributing household essentials to the door step of the Panadurians! The only way I thought this could work smoothly was by resorting to the use of technology as an enabler. A hurriedly put together website was created with the help of the ‘We Are Designers’ team who worked tirelessly for a few days. My ‘nephew & niece’ team, Varnika & Anusha, got busy with sourcing reliable small-time suppliers of fruits, vegetables, fish, chicken and eggs from Panadura.
A few of our partners who supply us with good quality, reasonably priced goods fit for household consumption
Our biggest hurdle was sourcing grocery items, which none of the wholesale or retail shops would commit to supplying. One telephone call to Nushad Perera, my buddy, who now heads Satosa readily agreed to support this cause and requested his ‘Panadura – 4’ team to help us with providing essential food items. The Panadura dealer for Litro Gas was more than happy to collaborate too. Likewise, each person we approached, readily consented to be a partner to this ambitious plan during a gross scarcity. Anurath Abeyaratne, the biggest corrugated carton manufacturer in the country, a proud Panadura product gave me boxes for packing the goods with just one phone call. Help and support came readily. I had to just ask.
My ex-Ogilvy colleague Janakantha, who now runs a successful activation company from Panadura, promptly agreed to help me with the transport requirements. We had to obtain permission from the government machinery and the Police to utilize trishaws for delivery of goods to households in Panadura. That was no easy task. But we prevailed!
Dorakodata.com was thus born!
The ‘Family & Friends’ Team manning ‘Dorakodata’ deliveries
Our communications were largely through social media, more specifically via Facebook and WhatsApp. It didn’t take too long for the customer base to increase from zero to a few hundreds within weeks. Challenges were many; mostly sourcing a continuous supply of goods and also responding to increasing requests of more and more choices of what we thought were ‘essential’ items. Encouragement, appreciation and kudos galore. This kept us going amidst the mounting daily challenges.
Most of our customers are those who are not computer savvy or who have no prior experience in ordering via web sites. This was a challenge too, and an ongoing one at that. I have seen my nephew literally hand holding some customers into the web order. Those who find it impossible to order via the site, upload hand written WhatsApp messages which we accept reluctantly even though our work load gets more complex with this. But we oblige as this is truly a service we initiated during a crisis.
Our mission is to serve the people of Panadura by providing as many essentials as we could source at the most reasonable price. This was not about making a profit but fulfilling a purpose we set out to achieve. We soon found that ‘household cravings’ were increasing and with it more and more non-essential items being sought.
To respond to some of these growing ‘wants’, we soon introduced Dorakodata Express, delivering treats such as ice-cream and desserts. This also picked up fast as expected.
Our deliveries are made keeping the safety of the customers and our delivery team’s safety at heart.
What we have begun to unearth through this service is the amazing products that people of Panadura have been producing unknown to most of us. Some of these products are being exported and some of them are being marketed throughout the country in supermarkets and retail outlets. Our endevour is to give pride of place to most of these products through our website and home delivery service. Already they are being picked up from our site slowly but surely.
We love to improvise as we go along. For this Vesak celebrations, where families are locked-down, we offered a DIY lantern set which has made an impact amongst our customer base in Panadura and beyond.
It’s just over a month since we started this ambitious project and we have served over 500 homes to date. It’s a tough road we embarked on, believing that Covid Lockdown may last for a week or two. So many delivery services have started in Panadura using varying communications models, but none have managed to achieve what we have, within this short time span. It’s nothing but the power of technology and our passion with a purpose.
It is interesting to see how brands from outside of Panadura are reaching out to us to enlist their products on our site. This means we have begun to create some traction and impact, both in our home town and beyond.
Now we seem to be caught between a rock and a hard place not knowing whether ‘to be or not to be’, post Covid 19. This decision will also depend on my nephew and his wife, if they want to make this a long-term business venture in the future when everything will have to be re-strategized as per the new normal.
Whatever happens with our own delivery system, my fervent hope is that the small time vendor who rose to the crisis will live in our small towns forever! I have begun to enjoy the sound of “maalu maalu and elawalu ealwalu” on our streets like never before…