India has always been a land of paradoxes.
This is a cliche, and yet cliches exist because they are true. It is true for the reasons that everyone talks about — India’s 25% illiteracy paired with the world’s second-largest pool of trained engineers, the widespread use of bullock carts in a country with one of the world’s most advanced satellite programs, and India’s pre-eminence as a nuclear power though Delhi still suffers through daily power cuts. Yet this cliche is just as true for something people don’t talk about as much, the technology sector.
Only 0.1% of India’s apps were targeted for non-knowledge workers, which make up 60% of its population.
India boasts of its 279 million “knowledge workers” with strong English skills. These knowledge workers constitute 40% of the overall Indian working population (679 million), with the larger non-knowledge worker segment with weak English skills constituting the remaining 60%.
Yet only 0.1% of the internet apps churned out by India in 2016 support regional languages or address use cases relevant to the “non-knowledge worker” majority, such as finding water supplies or predicting crop harvest patterns.
The statement that India is a land of paradoxes could not be truer. However, this problem — that technology does not focus on the majority of India’s population — is merely a symptom pointing to a larger malaise in the ecosystem.
A Classic Catch-22 Situation
Consider this: as we navigate from rich to poor and from urban to rural India, we see decreasing levels of English awareness and internet penetration. As per IAMAI’s 2016 report, more than 70% of the country’s internet-penetrated universe is from urban India, with rural India grossly under-represented.
This selection bias is part of a vicious cycle — low internet penetration in rural India drives a low focus on building technology for rural India, and vice versa.
So what do we fix first, the chicken or the egg? Do we first bring India’s “offline” population online and get technology application creators to follow, or does the technology ecosystem need to take the lead?
Expecting India’s offline population to come online without any kind of incentive is unrealistic. Only strong incentives will break this segment’s inertia. The ecosystem has to take the lead and build apps meant for the larger working population.
The Big “Why” Question
Before we delve into how technology creators should target India’s offline population, it’s important to consider the “why” — the root cause of this state of affairs. There are two main variables at play here.
1. Demographic profile of technology creators
India has a strong developer culture, and it is one of the world leaders in the size of its Android developer community. However, developers in India come from the knowledge-worker minority, raised with English-medium higher education and English-speaking backgrounds. So their selection bias to create English-based apps is intuitive.
India is also a country with a strong “post-colonial” hangover, and English is seen as a vehicle for aspirational career growth. Hence, technology creators, even if they are from disadvantaged or rural backgrounds, end up building applications in English that serve only the knowledge-worker class.
2. Limited mobile support for local languages
Today’s smartphones are not very friendly towards consuming and entering information in regional Indian languages. Space-constrained smartphones demand succinct communication, which becomes difficult with the verbose Devanagari script. This problem is compounded by the limited Indic font support in most smartphones today.
The Bigger “How” Conundrum
Now that we understand the reasons for our current conundrum, let’s decipher what technology creators can do to build apps that resonate with “Bharat”, India’s offline majority.
1. Go after real-world problems
Online shopping, cab booking, and food delivery are not problems for people who are struggling to make ends meet.
In order to interest the rural working population in technology, applications need to solve their problems or the pain points they are grappling with. Online shopping, cab booking, and food delivery are not real-world problems for people who are struggling to make ends meet.
The key necessities for the rural working world include a stable water supply, uninterrupted electricity, access to quality education, affordable housing, and predictability in crop harvest patterns. Could GPS heat maps be used to determine where wells need to be dug? Could applications transform a mobile phone into an inverter that generates electricity? Could technology build pipes that connect high-quality learning content from MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) such as Khan Academy and Coursera to offline learners? Can GPS be used to predict weather and rain patterns, marry them with soil analysis, and recommend which crops should be harvested?
If technology can help solve problems like these, it would be a huge step towards bringing the rural working population online.
2. Go local: build apps that break linguistic barriers
To make technology applications relatable to India’s rural working population, it is necessary to communicate in the languages that population is most comfortable with.
For this, we could take a leaf out of our neighbor China’s playbook. Almost 90% of the apps built in China are in Chinese, and this is one explanation for why close to 50% of China’s citizens are online.
3. Get rid of the flab: build apps that are lightweight
1 out of every 2 app uninstalls is due to a lack of phone space.
Data from Teks Mobile suggests that 1 out of every 2 app uninstalls is due to a lack of phone space. Given the ubiquity of cheap smartphones with low storage space in India, the chances of an application retaining a spot on a smartphone increases by a factor of two if the application is lightweight. Reducing the application’s flab increases its chances of finding and more importantly retaining a spot on the user’s phone.
4. Build apps that work on the flakiest data connections
As per Akamai’s Third Quarter 2016 State of the Internet Report, India’s average internet speed is 4.1 mbps. Technology applications built for “Bharat” need to be able to work seamlessly at such low connection speeds.
Global giants such as WhatsApp and Facebook have managed to do this with varying degrees of success. WhatsApp has a user base of over 1 billion people, nearly 15% of the world’s population. One of the key reasons for its ubiquitous presence is its ability to deliver seamless performance over even the poorest data connection. Facebook Lite is an attempt by the global social media giant to build a similar lightweight application optimized for areas with slow data speeds.
5. Keep it free for consumers, monetize from enterprises
Some of the most successful companies worldwide — Google, Facebook, and Twitter — have kept their offerings completely free for the average consumer. They make money by charging enterprises for access to advertise or reach out to their captive audiences. This pragmatic strategy is even more relevant when building applications for a target user group with significantly lower per capita incomes, rural India.
Let’s contextualize this by elaborating on an example from earlier. An app could provide free information to consumers about where to drill a well to find water, but charge the drilling machine company for access to that consumer.
“Make for Bharat” needs to be the new mantra on the lips of the country’s technology entrepreneurs.
Thus far, technology companies in India have only been building apps for the knowledge worker minority. But this is not enough — they need to start building and shipping products for “Bharat”, the country’s non-knowledge worker majority. Doing this will power the next wave of growth for the Indian technology and mobile landscape.