Hello world

The news that Anil Ambani of Reliance was dreaming of creating a retail revolution in India would be old hat were it not for the fact that he’s planning to do it all over the mobile platform. If Ambani has his way,

Mobi-Retail, […] will be offered to the 35 million subscribers of Reliance Communications, who will be able to use their handsets to buy over 100,000 products ranging from fresh vegetables to groceries, readymade garments, toys and electronics [for pick up or home delivery]
“Multi-store menus are essential as all mobile screens cannot show all the 100,000 products. The smaller store menus which have smaller number of products would fit into lower-end phone models,” said a source.

Adapt your product range and menu to the constraints of the mobile displays across the range and you’re essentially covering every segment of populace who owns a phone. Which brings me to the next two data points of interest, the first, via Vanderbeeken,

Even as net connections are falling, the number of people accessing the web on their cellphones increased by a whopping 7 million to cross the 38 million mark. This emphasises how the cellphone is fast becoming the primary medium for Indians to connect to the net as the number of people using their mobile handsets to access the web is now over four times those using a PC.

That means over a fifth of India’s 200 million-plus mobile subscribers use their cellphones to log in to their favourite websites.

and the second,

Breaking the misconception that only the urban centers power the phenomenal growth in mobile telephone, is latest data compilation introduced by […] The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India shows that rural mobile phone connections stood at 39.46 million up to June 2007. With a total subscriber base of 185 million that month, rural subscribers formed a formidable block of 21.31 percent, or over onefifth of the total mobile user base in India.
Rural India, experts say, represents the next big growth opportunity for mobile services operators.[…] BSNL Director (finance) SD Saxena said nearly 70 percent of all future mobile growth in the country would come from rural areas.

Finally, before I bring it all back to what can be and what it can do to bridge that so called divide, is this little snippet about a Telcom conference in New Delhi,

“In the rural context, it would be voice messaging, not SMS, that would be popular,” said K Sridhara, member of Technology, DOT, Ministry of Communications & IT. He rejected the contention that rural users are too poor to pay for mobile services, quoting his own observations in remote areas.
The use of the mobile phone enabled them to widen their market, locate customers, and raise their revenue so that it more than paid for the cost of using the service, he explained.

Nandini Lakshman who wrote the original BusinessWeek article on how the mobile was improving rural income levels added that once there was an example of economic success in front their eyes, it didn’t take long for the villagers to figure out that they too could benefit by doing the same – investing in a cellphone and using it to turn entreprenuerial. She observed that if operators were to offer a bundled package of services for the micro businessman along with the basic phone service, perhaps including microfinance as well as training and support, she wouldn’t be surprised if they could sell more than they expected.

The business opportunities are just one aspect of the potential change we happen to be standing on the tip of, imho, when it comes to rural india and the mobile phone. While “Nokia” may have become synonymous with ‘cellphone’ in India, perhaps its time for mobile operators like Bharti and others to seriously invest in ethnographic research to understand the aspirations and ambitions of their current and future rural customers and designing services that fit those unmet needs, beyond the need for a simple phone call. If the mobile is indeed creating jobs, increasing incomes and adding value – we’re looking at the potential to design service plans unlike any ever required in the urban or developed context.

Could basic business training be part of a mobile plan? Can they be taught to use the calculator? Can a class on effective usage of a phone be part of the purchase? The area is ripe for innovative ideas but to truly make the difference they must be based on insights derived from immersion and research.  Shameless plug here, I happen to have a 90 day project fleshed out and ready to start on just  this topic – understanding the needs of the rural Indian resident from the point of view of information and services delivered over the mobile phone. A riot in June stopped its progress, and the time is ripe to finally make it happen. Email me if you are interested. This could very well unleash our generation’s ‘green’ revolution in rural India.

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