Start-ups are going all out to bridge the digital divide and make their platforms more accessible to users in non-metro areas by offering vernacular content
BY 2017, the number of Internet users in India will touch 503 million, from the nearly 278 million users it had in October 2014. As per a 2014 joint report released by industry body Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) and consultancy KPMG, the number of mobile Internet users in India is also expected to rise to 314 million by 2017, nearly double the 159 million it had at the end of October 2014.
Now, compare these figures to the proportion of English language speakers in the country. As per the second round of the India Human Development Survey (IHDS) organised in 2011-12 by the country’s National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) and the US-based University of Maryland, only 10% of Indians—some 120 million people—are fluent in English, while 55% do not speak the language at all.
In order to tap this new and emerging market, several players in the start-up ecosystem, which have been largely English-oriented so far, are now aiming to break the language barrier—especially in tier-II and -III cities and rural areas, from where, as per trade pundits, the next wave of growth in the Indian Internet space will come.
In December, online classifieds platform Quikr launched its vernacular language support by allowing users to choose from seven different languages—Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Gujarati and Marathi—to browse, as well as post ads. Online marketplace Snapdeal, which already has a multi-lingual user interface in place, is all set to make itself available in 11 regional languages—Hindi, Telugu, Gujarati, Tamil, Marathi, Bengali, Kannada, Malayalam, Oriya, Assamese and Punjabi—by January 26 this year.
Clearly, there is a shift in strategies. “With 70% of our customers coming from tier-II and -III cities, regional interface will give us easy access to a larger audience and, consequently, increase our user base,” explains Anand Chandrasekaran, chief product officer, Snapdeal.
Anurag Saran, chief product officer, Quikr, shares similar views. “The Indian online classifieds industry is growing strongly and we see tremendous potential in tier-II and -III markets as well. With our existing ‘missed call’ service, we are already reaching out to potential consumers who are not Internet- or tech-savvy to post ads on the platform. Coupled with our vernacular language options, we are now also making it easier for everyone to transact online,” he says.
IIT-Kanpur graduates Bhola Ram Meena and Vipin Agarwal started OnlineTyari, a test preparation platform, to provide relevant educational material to users for various exams, including banking, civil services, SSC, GATE and railways, among others. This ‘edu-tech’ space, they say, is worth over $20 billion and is on the cusp of a revolution.
However, what has apparently worked in their favour—the start-up claims to have achieved over 2.5 million downloads in just about a year of its launch in August 2014, with over 2.6 lakh daily active users—is the delivery of content in languages other than English. After providing studying material in English and Hindi, OnlineTyari has now made its content available in Marathi. It plans to add many more regional languages in the next six months.
“With a population of over 10 crore, Maharashtra is the second-largest populous state in India. Bringing content in the state language, Marathi, will give us access to millions of students who prefer to prepare for exams in their native language,” says 34-year-old co-founder Meena, who ran a taxi-hailing app GetMeCab before venturing into the edu-tech space.
Similarly, from day one, Hike—a homegrown messaging platform—had a mission to bring India online through messaging and knew that it could not do so without the inclusion of local languages. “In India, less than 11% of the population is conversant in English and thus it was extremely important that we introduced Hike in local languages.
This would mean that people and communities across the length and breadth of India will be in touch with their family and friends in their own native languages, defying the English language barrier felt in messaging apps,” says Kavin Mittal, founder and CEO of Hike. The start-up recently raised an undisclosed amount of funding from Silicon Valley veterans like Quora founder and CEO Adam D’Angelo, Dropbox’s vice-president Aditya Agarwal and WordPress co-founder Matt Mullenweg.
In December, Hike launched its app in eight vernacular languages—Hindi, Marathi, Tamil, Gujarati, Bengali, Malayalam, Kannada and Telugu. “We already have about a million people reading Hindi news on Hike Messenger. With the launch of local languages, we expect Hike to be more useful to a broader user base,” adds Mittal.
For Snapdeal, this is not its first brush with local languages. In 2014, it had made its platform available in two languages—Hindi and Telugu—as part of an experiment. However, Chandrasekaran says the latest development is not a relaunch, but an extension of their multi-lingual platform initiative. “We used the 2014 experiment as a base to work further on the platform on the basis of feedback received from buyers and sellers,” he explains.
The latest multi-lingual platform is built using Snapdeal’s cutting-edge technology to make the experience more authentic and seamless for users. It is built using Snaplite, Snapdeal’s website for mobile browser, which is 85% lighter and consumes less bandwidth. “This means that not only is it in regional languages, it also consumes 85% less bandwidth and loads in one-fourth the time of most other mobile sites. The result is a convenient and enhanced shopping experience for all those users who are more comfortable accessing Internet in their regional languages and a seamless online shopping process even in areas where network connectivity is poor,” adds Chandrasekaran.
Clearly, technology will play a major role in reaching out to the masses. “Using technology to empower our consumers has always been at the heart of our innovations. We have leveraged various technologies to ensure there is no delay in rendering ads in any of the available languages on the platform. Also, in-app and virtual keyboards help them post ads in a language of their choice,” says Saran of Quikr.
During his recent visit to India, Google CEO Sundar Pichai spoke about how the future growth of Internet in India would come from the non-English-speaking part of the country, how Google is focusing on the vernacular by supporting a dozen Indian languages—making voice recognition and search easier in native Indian languages—and even allowing typing in multiple languages. Clearly, companies across the board are accelerating and aiding the process of ‘localisation’ of Internet because that’s where their growth in India lies. That’s where the consumer is, along with the money.
“All these initiatives will provide the required infrastructure to engage non-English-speaking users,” says Rahul Yadav, director, products, CarDekho, an online auto classifieds app, adding, “With the penetration of mobile phones and an increase in data usage, non-English-speakers will contribute a lot in the future. In order to reach beyond selected demographics, vernacular products will play a key role.”
CarDekho—in which businessman Ratan Tata recently invested an undisclosed amount close on the heels of the announcement of series B funding of $50 million from a few Hong Kong-based investors—launched its portal in three languages, Hindi, Tamil and Telugu, last year. “It would be difficult to estimate the direct business impact of this move right now, but we are very optimistic that by increasing our user base and offering a rich user experience, we will be able to strengthen our business in tier-II and -III cities,” says Yadav.
As per Saran of Quikr, increasing Internet and smartphone penetration—coupled with the lingual diversity of the population—makes a strong business case for localised and tailored content. “The initial response has been great and the languages that have realised the highest adoption—other than Hindi—are Marathi and Telugu. Over time, we plan to add more languages to the platform. We have also noticed that the adoption of vernacular is significantly higher on our mobile site compared to other channels like desktop or app,” he adds.
The language barrier
503 mn is the estimated number of Internet users in India by 2017; the figure was around 278 m at the end of October 201.
314 mn is the estimated number of mobile Internet users in India by 2017; the figure was 159 m at the end
of October 2014.
10% people in India are fluent in English.
55% people in India do not speak English at all.
Source: A 2014 report by Internet and Mobile Association of India, and KPMG; and a 2011-12 India Human Development Survey by National Council of Applied Economic Research and University of Maryland, US.