Many professionals in India's private sector may have wondered why they practise their skill in a formal environment and in the least-spoken language: English. It's because the best-paying jobs have always required knowledge of English, a language that most in India don't speak or write in. The internet poses the same paradox for Indian users, and call for entrepreneurs to think locally — be local.
“You can buy 'slippers' on the internet,
par ' chappal' nahin khareed saktein (but can't buy 'chappal'),” Arvind Pani, co-founder of Reverie Language Technologies, pointed out to tech founders at Think Next, a Microsoft Accelerator conclave, in the Bengaluru of July 2016. In five minutes, Pani described what the internet needed to do for users in our country: “India is a local language country — not an English-speaking country. But the internet is welcome to only 4 percent of Indians who are fluent in English. And the content that is there in local languages is less than 0.1 percent of what's available online.”
Reliance Industrial Investments and Holdings* acquired Reverie recently to apply its language technology stack in its digital ecosystem. Reverie has been on its localisation mission for a decade. And Pani was so right about how unaddressed our user base is.
In 2016, a KPMG-FICCI report on the media and entertainment industry found 88 percent of Indians to be non-English speakers. It also cited a viewership share of regional TV languages —television is a mature business in India: Tamil (25.7 percent) led the charts, followed by Telugu (24.4 percent), Kannada (11.6 percent) and Malayalam (9.2 percent), according to the Broadcast Audience Research Council of India survey. English was in a 2 percent category called 'Others'!
This market trait has already caught the sharp eye of Chinese entrepreneurs like Lei Jun. Xiaomi, the company he started, has investments in multilingual social app ShareChat and Samosa Labs India, which has developed an app to create and edit videos with filters and stickers in regional languages. But Lei Jun's fund Shunwei Capital has been even more active in the content and information space. Apart from ShareChat, Shunwei has taken stakes in Vokal (knowledge sharing), ClipApp (video), MyUpchar (health information), Pratilipi (regional language publisher), and KukuFN (podcast).
Google has built a lead in India because of mass-proliferation of Android phones, especially in the affordable price points. And with data becoming cheap after the launch of Reliance Jio, Google is riding trends peculiar to India like 40 percent of search (queries) occurring through voice. The opportunity that Indian entrepreneurs have picked is: there isn't enough inventory for Google or Amazon's Alexa to index in regional languages.
It's pretty much the situation that guys like Evan Williams saw in the California of the late '90s. Williams came from a farming background and didn't know how to code, but ended up starting three large internet platforms: Blogger (which Google bought out in 2003) and Twitter (which started as Odeo, an audio blogging platform), and now
Medium.com. Williams has evangelised self-publishing.
Legend says Williams taught himself to code. As Williams was quoted to have said in Nick Bilton's fantastic 2013 book,
Hatching Twitter: “People don't invent things on the internet. They simply expand on an idea that already exists.” True, and entrepreneurs in India are expanding on the regional language reality.
“Companies are actually built on use cases — what is it that you actually do? That use case could be search, social, payments, etc.,” says Ranjeet Pratap Singh, co-founder of Pratilipi. The scope of each such use-case widens and deepens because of regional languages and algorithms that enable that smoothly for features like recommendation engine.
Pratilipi, which started in 2015, has evolved into a blogging platform in nine Indian languages. It has 4.5 million monthly active users, of which 1.3 million are on app and the remaining on browser, reading from 760,000 stories (mostly fiction and literature).
“We just build the infrastructure and tools, while other people publish their stories—it could be poetry, essays, novel, books, audio books, cookery,” Singh says. “We will make the account for you, publish your content, will tell you if you get reviews, and so on.” It did begin with a chicken-and-egg problem: “If you don't have readers, how will you get writers? If you don't have writers, how will you get readers?”
Meanwhile, Vokal has built on a different use-case: question and answer. It has capitalised on the voice search opportunity. “Create a space where people can freely ask questions, and people who know can come to answer,” says Aprameya Radhakrishna, co-founder and CEO of Vokal. “Reading text is a step or effort (for users) to get to know something, so people are moving to voice. Even in creation of content, typing is difficult on the mobile screen. Writing comes last.”
Place — not time
Aprameya had sensed the need to build in regional languages in his previous startup TaxiForSure (TFS) itself. When TFS launched its driver app, taxi drivers struggled also because they were not familiar with English. “They learned how to use it because it resulted in more trips. But if we had made it in Kannada or Hindi, ease of use would have improved,” he recalls.
But how does Vokal get discovered by people across the language spectrum? Google.
“Our content is indexed on Google,” says Mayank Bidawatka, co-founder of Vokal. “The (users') questions get indexed immediately. So when you search for something on Google in your language, you start finding our content. Then, you land on our website, and discover lots of other content before you know how to get our app.”
Vokal's bet is on Indians' innate bent toward GK (general knowledge) and
KBC ( Kaun Banega Crorepati). In the print era, the need for this was plugged by guides, books and encyclopaedias. KBC thrived in the television era. As Google provides the reach, Vokal wants to be the app that rides this digital wave. It has 2 million monthly active users from eleven languages clusters, with Hindi leading the pack.
“Social media has given people the ability to express themselves,” Bidawatka says. “This is missing in vernacular languages. We give the tools to make that happen. And Q&A is a nice way to engage people in video and voice.” Users ask a question on Vokal using voice. It gets automatically typed into text, and Vokal helps get answers from subject matter experts. An operations team cleans up the question or sentence for typos, grammar, and so on.
Many of these ventures will most likely scale and succeed in term of value. But the Evan Williams of India may actually emerge from the hinterland, discovering a niche need we are not aware of because he or she sees a utility or use case requiring a regional language in the local environments. With a smartphone solution, it will scale with users, generate revenue and eke out profits faster than online ventures before it in India. My cheeky bet is: a Chinese investor will find this entrepreneur.
We'll then wonder why nobody else in India discovered this local language app, or executed like our own Ev Williams. It's because we aren't there in urbanising India. We haven't lived those problems. And because most of the investor and entrepreneurial community in the cities still function in English.
Tech Trail is a column that delves on technology in the Indian realm. Kunal Talgeri is a freelance journalist in Bengaluru. The views in this column are those of the author.
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