Digitizing the masses: The Indian opportunity

Harmeen Mehta, Global CIO, Bharti Airtel

How do you take advantage of the sheer mass of people in India? And in Asia at large when the population is so diverse?  This is the dilemma presented by Harmeen Mehta, Global Chief Information Officer, Bharti Airtel to the audience during her keynote speech at TM Forum Live! Asia in Singapore.

The world has 7.5 billion people in it, 4.5 billion of them reside in Asia, 1.2 billion of them in India.

“It’s a real feature when any part of the world launches [new technology]. You bring it to countries like India and China, and suddenly it becomes a mass phenomenon,” Mehta explained. “When you have so many people, everything spreads like wildfire.” At least it can, but only if the technology transcends the gulfs between different segments of the population.

A country of contradictions

Mehta opines that she has never seen a country where everything is in so much contrast:

  • Just 1 percent of Indians contribute 58 percent of the total wealth in the country
  • India has some of the best universities in the world. A couple of its colleges and universities are in the top 50 in the world
  • Despite that, it has over 200 million illiterate people
  • There are 150 million desktop computers in a country of 1.2 billion people
  • BUT, 970 million have a smart phone

“What would digital mean in a country like this? Where 200 million people are uneducated. How do you create a digital proposition?

“So while we’re a country that defines the highest of the high, we’re also the country that defines the flaw in everything as well. That’s the chasm; how do you create the digital strategy for a country like that?”

The challenge that the largest mobile operators and digital service providers in India have, is how do they create a proposition which is not something that appeals to a small percentage of society, but will create a digital country? Something  that is relevant for the next billion users?

Mehta explains that this question is not being answered effectively by leading digital economy players.

“Amazon or Uber, the largest e-commerce companies in India [have digital solutions]that only appeal to 1/15 of the population at max, and this is an exaggerated number.

“Usage goes to the 200 million number, and then stops. For the last 18 months we’ve not been able to cross that little chasm.”

In many countries 200 million is a huge number but not in India. And so, when talking about a country full of contradictions, Mehta decides to be full of contradictions herself. While many may say “Look how great we’ve done,” Mehta prefers to say “look how much better we can do. This is where the opportunity is, this is what we’ve not covered.”

How to reach the masses

For Mehta, the answer lies not in creating the best app or the best website, but about considering how to take 1.5 billion people on a digital journey.

“While 200 million people have never gone to school, and have not been educated, there is one thing they do know how to do, they know how to speak. And Indians are famous for talking. We talk a lot.

“We generate about 25 – 40 billion MBs in data in one day. This is exactly the same volume that Whatsapp creates [globally]in a day, and other than emails, Whatsapp is considered the second highest traffic generator on the internet.”

And so, Mehta suggests chasing the voice over text phenomenon, and not only through the Siris or the Alexas of this world, but developing something that is localized and that every consumer could understand.

“A few years ago, we launched a very small platform called one touch internet. It was really targeted towards that 1 billion people who’ve never used data before.

“It’s not that people don’t want to use [this solution], they don’t know what to use, what they’ll do, how to use it.”

Some customers need to be led to content rather than being given access to everything through web browser or app store. By providing specific services that give people something they understand and want, Bharti Airtel is exposing new customers to web-based content and created a base on which it can build.

“What we’ve done to draw people in is create a solution where we take the latest Bollywood songs and movie clips and put them out there for one rupee. You could pay one rupee and just watch anything which is a snippet of any kind of a video. The amazing thing was, at that point we were getting a few million people come and consume what I call ‘snacking content’ almost on a daily basis.”

This was a few years ago, and from there, the power of video has completely changed the data consumption in the country. It’s about creating different digital habits in people and that doesn’t have to be overly complicated or always at the cutting edge of technology.

Mehta explains, “Some of the simplest things we did over the course of the last few months, is really learn how people actually consume.

“What happens is when we’re designing, we design solutions propositions for people like ourselves. We forget there’s a completely different mass out there.”

By focusing on the needs and capabilities of the masses, Bharti Airtel is beginning to find answers to the difficult challenge of digitalizing a country like India. Digital propositions in other countries cannot simply be parachuted in and expected to work for all. To get through the glass ceiling they must be adapted or new propositions created, but the sheer size of the population means that effective solutions can and will reach critical mass fast.

Look out for the video of Mehta’s entire keynote speech in the next few weeks, where she shares more ways Airtel has developed solutions for the population at large.


    About The Author


    Arti has been writing and editing for seven years in the fields of technology, business and finance. She is particularly interested in how firms are innovating to bring us into the next digital age.

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