In November 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced demonetization of the 500 and 1000 denomination notes. It was a turning point for India's economy as the entire nation was about to be introduced to digital payments and transactions in a big way. In the following days, city dwellers like me switched to our mobile wallets and UPI apps for digital payments. However, digitization, which was one of the end goals of demonetization, wasn't as instant for non-urban India's cash-based economy.
A USAID-Intellecap study says that even today, 22 months later, the level of cash in circulation is pretty much the same as it was before demonetization. This indicates that people living in the smaller cities and towns in India still haven't adopted digital payments and transactions. With cash still being the preferred mode of payment, Bharat is a far cry from a cashless economy. To give you an idea, out of the 300 million people in India that use Smartphones, a staggering 270 million people rely on cash payments for simple tasks such as a mobile recharge. One might wonder - why aren't these people using technology to make their lives easy?
Why is Bharat Reluctant to Use Technology:
The author believes that there are three factors that stop Bharat from embracing technology:
Language Barrier: In a country that has at least 22 major spoken languages, technology providers face the challenge of reaching out to non-English speakers. Apps with an English language interface have a slim chance of reaching out to India's 70 per cent population that doesn't know the language. Thanks to Smartphone penetration and competitive internet tariffs, nine out of ten people who are using the internet for the first time today are non-English speakers. There is a growing number of internet users today who prefer to interact in their native language, and they will soon outnumber English speaking users.
India saw the first step in localizing technology in 2017 when the government mandated local phone manufacturers to include official languages support. Today, a few messaging, social media and utility apps have also joined the bandwagon and provide user-interface in multiple Indian languages.
If technology companies want to deep dive into Bharat, they should enable users to do more than just chatting and browsing through social media in their native language. While eCommerce apps have made their interface available in Indian languages, the payment interface is still in English, thereby discouraging masses from transacting online.
In the 2012 film English Vinglish, the protagonist Shashi learns English in a foreign land to earn her family's love and respect. Today, the tables have turned. If tech companies want their products to be accepted and used by Bharat vasis, they need to sideline English and focus on Vinglish. In other words, they need to build end-to-end products with multiple native language capabilities - not as an add-on but as a primary offering.
Complicated Interface: There is a steep learning curve involved when it comes to online transactions, mostly due to complicated digital interfaces. Users need to read, learn and understand a lot to carry out simple transactions. So even if an internet user knows the language, an interface with many tabs and prompts can be intimidating for a first time user. Tech companies should look at making their digital interfaces so simple that both non-English speakers and first-time internet users can adopt to it.
Personal Touch: We have been traditionally conversing with human beings for all our transactional needs - right from our vegetable vendor to our bank teller. However, online transactions are entirely different in nature. The huge difference between these interactions holds the non-urban India back from transacting online. Adding a human touch to digital interactions can warm up people to the idea of online transactions.
The next frontier for Bharat - AI and ML:
Global internet and technology giants such as Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, and Google are all leveraging Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) to solve the above barriers. Technology providers are using Automated Speech Recognition (ASR), Natural Language Processing (NLP) and Natural Language Understanding (NLU), to assist users with more than just translation. With the ability to understand the context and interpret the sentiment and intent behind the text, across multiple languages, NLP equipped bots can humanize digital transactions.
An increasing number of companies, across multiple sectors, are leveraging ASR, NLU and NLP to build AI voice assistants to help users with online transactions. The author sees some early adopters, and they are not limited to global giants such as Amazon and Google. Homegrown startups such as Niki.ai are harnessing AI to build localized and voice-first interfaces that are easy to use, even for first-time users. The startup's conversational commerce interface has been widely adopted by players in the BFSI sector. Niki.ai has already built for hindi and english consumers, and will be launching for tamil too this year.
The growth story of India’s digitization has shifted from the metros to Bharat. We’re still far from reaching the inflexion point of non-english speakers coming online for the first time. Technology companies today are sitting on a goldmine - trillions of dollars of untapped Bharat market. Now, more than ever, for a nation as diverse as ours, is the time to harness the power of AI to truly understand, solve and lead Bharat towards complete digitisation.
— Ronnie Srewvala, Entrepreneur and Philanthropist