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Vernacular Tech changing Business Landscape in India for Next Billion Users

November 1, 2018

India is currently home to the second largest population of internet users and increasing rapidly with around 40 million users coming online every year. This number is sure to grow, especially with a large number of new users coming from rural areas. Most companies and phone manufacturers are used to tailoring their services to a different audience, most of whom are comfortable using English. As the number of internet users from rural areas increase, businesses are increasingly realizing that the best way to reach the ‘Next Billion Users’ is to provide options in local languages. According to a 2017 report by KPMG and Google, 9 out of 10 new internet users between 2016 and 2021 will use local languages. Companies are quickly recognizing that their best chance of growth is to attract these users by building solutions that cater to their language requirements. [1]

The sharp increase in the number of internet users from smaller cities and villages can be attributed to several factors. First, and most importantly, was the launch of the Reliance’s Jio network which led to a widespread drop in the prices of mobile data. According to Sateesh Nukula, CEO and Co-Founder of BigHaat, an e-commerce platform that targets farmers, Jio drives a large amount of their total traffic. Within six months of Jio’s launch, India became the highest mobile data user in the world, consuming over 1 billion GB of data every month, compared to 200 million GB earlier.[1] Moreover, with the launch of several new affordable phone brands in the past few years, the number of smartphone users in India is expected to touch 530 million by the end of 2018. Another major factor is the steep improvement in digital literacy in rural India, primarily due to a Government drive. The drive aims to reach 60 million rural households with an investment of USD 351 million by March 2019.[3]

Bighaat, Farmers Smart, Agritech, Vernacular, Ecommerce, India
BigHaat ‘Make Farmers Smart’ on-ground outreach to improve digital literacy

A number of applications have emerged to cater to the need for technological needs of the vernacular audiences. For example, BabyChakra is a health and wellness app which is available in 10 different languages as it targets users in Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities. It recently raised money to further develop regional and language-specific content.

An interesting story is that of Karma Healthcare, an innovative health-tech enterprise that provides affordable, accessible and quality primary healthcare in rural and semi-urban India using a judicious mix of technology and on-ground interventions to improve health outcomes. Their CEO, Jagdeep Gambhir, explained the challenges associated with his goal to provide quality healthcare. The foremost issue, according to him, is the language barrier. All the names for the medicines and prescriptions are in English. While the names of the medicines cannot be changed, they decided to start providing the prescriptions in local languages. Moreover, they now employ interesting models of user interaction design to showcase the time the medicine would need to be taken, as well as the quantity. For instance, the sun would indicate morning. Even for their marketing and outreach videos, which were earlier using only English, are now created in local languages.

Karma Healthcare, Rural India, Healthtech, Delivery, Indian Local Language, User Interaction
Karma Healthcare reaches rural areas by creating content in local languages

Another method that companies are using to reach more users is building applications that are specifically tailored to phones with lesser storage and slower internet connectivity. This is evidenced by the fact that the top mobile applications of the US significantly differ from those popular amongst Indian audiences. Many of the apps that top the charts on the Indian app stores, including UC Browser, MX Player and SHAREit, have been tailored specifically for slower internet connections and mobile phones with relatively less storage, both of which are issues prevalent in the developing and underdeveloped areas of India. Even bigger corporations are following suit. LinkedIn India recently launched LinkedIn Lite, a modification of their original app, which requires lesser data to make it compliant with 2G phones.

BigHaat is another company that ensures that their platform is not heavy in terms of data or memory usage. Sateesh states that they have also begun publishing their farm advisory content in Hindi and other local languages, which has attracted a lot of users. Recognizing that video content is a large driver as rural users expect more content in their languages, BigHaat plans to publish videos in local languages on its product page to appeal to potential new users.

The die is cast. In just a few years, we expect offerings that are designed for the next billion — whether around language, assisted interfaces, local context or networks — to become the new normal. That said, it will be important for entrepreneurs/startups pursuing opportunities targeting the next billion to understand the nuances around the opportunity in ‘localization’. We believe that getting this right will be key for two kinds of businesses; those specifically targeting rural audiences or customers, for example agri-tech companies working with small farmers or media/Information services companies, and those that inherently need to establish a high level of trust before customers choose to transact with them, for example, healthcare service providers or fintech companies that facilitate larger financial transactions.

There is still lots of room for growth in the vernacular technology space. For enhanced user engagement, content generators should ensure that original and translated content is optimized for minimum data consumption without compromising on quality, adaptive display of output and minimum usage of physical memory on devices. Elements of the online & offline ecosystems should also provide a seamless unified customer experience in the local languages. Areas with potential include Indian language enablement of digital payment interfaces, voice recognition and interaction, language agnostic internet and monetization of multi-language data analytics.

In the times to come, the demand for local content and regional adaptability will reverse the language imbalance and urban-centric approaches, leading to technological advancements that will cover the entire world’s language and population diversity.

[1] https://assets.kpmg.com/content/dam/kpmg/in/pdf/2017/04/Indian-languages-Defining-Indias-Internet.pdf

[2] https://swarajyamag.com/ideas/jios-rise-has-increased-internet-penetration-and-data-usage-but-theres-more-to-it

[3] Indian Union Budget, 2017