Let us look at the requirements for the ICT (information and communications technology) solutions for the rural markets:
Mass-market: The solution needs to address the needs for tens of millions people. In India, this has to be a solution which can in a short period of time penetrate into each of the 600,000 villages to make a difference to hundreds of millions of people. It is a solution on a scale that has perhaps never been thought of before.
Scalable: Being able to scale out the solution is very important, else we will have created yet another demo wonder. Scalability will mean that there has to be a decentralisable element in the solution.
Emergent: Going hand-in-hand with scalability and decentralisation is the need for the solution to have emergent properties where it is driven from the bottom-up, and the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts. This can only happen if the solution is driven not by government, but by small entrepreneurs who see a commercial motivation to own, deploy and grow the solution.
Low R&D Costs: There is little time to go out and develop new solutions. The approach should be that of aggregation, not re-creation. This means looking around and pooling together existing ideas and technologies which may be just good enough, rather than spending years on creating what could be the perfect solution.
Extremely Affordable: We are talking of the worlds poorest markets. Affordability needs to be redefined keeping in mind these customers. These are segments of society we dont ordinarily think about. But they are the ones who are the worlds next markets. Costs have to be a fraction of what we are otherwise used to considering or paying.
Technologically Forward-looking: The solution needs to look to the future rather than into the past. What is there under the hood is not as critical as giving the same kind of features and performance as the ones in the developed world are used to. In some ways, there is an advantage in terms of legacy there simply isnt an existing solution to upgrade so there is no need for backward compatibility. This gives us an opportunity to leapfrog.
Platform Orientation: The solution must create an ecosystem in which multiple players can thrive. The approach must be that of creating a platform that others can build upon, without having to redo the groundwork from scratch.
Consider the Constraints: We cannot forget the limitations and realities of the rural markets intermittent and fluctuating power, connectivity which probably isnt there, a market which does not necessarily speak or understand English, and one which has been largely ignored and forgotten by the world (except the politicians who need votes in a democracy). Since connectivity is not a guarantee, the initial focus should be on information and offline communications services, rather than real-time, database-driven transactional services.
Commercially Viable: Above all, the solution needs to be economically sustainable, given the constraints of the rural markets. It must provide the rural entrepreneurs with a business model which enables them to not just make money but also grow the business with their own initiative and innovation.
As we think of the solution, we should keep these words by Stuart Hart and CK Prahalad (writing in Sloan Management Review) in mind: Disruptive Innovations compete against nonconsumption that is, they offer a product or service to people who would otherwise be left out entirely or poorly served by existing products and who are therefore quite happy to have a simpler, more modest version of what is available in the high-end markets.
Next Week: Transforming Rural India (continued)