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In a trendy converted factory building on the outskirts of Bangalore, the head of one of India’s top ecommerce sites draws two circles to illustrate the evolution of his industry.
He says the larger one represents the country’s English speakers, typically estimated at about 125m, or up to 300m if those with basic language skills are included. Inside it, a smaller circle stands for what was once an elite group of internet users which, as recently as 2010, stood at just 90m, or 7.5 per cent of the 1.2bn population.
“Once, us guys in air-conditioned offices, we were the guys on the internet,” Pranay Chulet explains. But, as chief executive of Quikr, the country’s leading website for classified advertisements, he has seen first hand how this has changed. “The internet circle kept on growing and, then, about a year ago it reached everyone who speaks English. So we are out of English speakers now.”
As is the case in the country’s finance and IT industries, commerce on the Indian internet has so far been conducted overwhelmingly in English — the lingua franca of the country’s educated classes, reflecting what was for years a mostly prosperous, skilled user base.
However, when Quikr rolled out services in Hindi and six other Indian tongues in December, it joined a growing number of homegrown and foreign companies racing to launch local-language offerings.
They are doing so in a bid to sustain growth in India as internet usage surges among lower-income users, who typically struggle to use English. They are getting online thanks to low-cost smartphones, sales of which have been rocketing.
Last year, smartphone sales in India rose 12 per cent — far faster than the global average — helping to push the number of regular internet users beyond 300m, according to the Internet and Mobile Association of India.
In January, the well-known ecommerce site Snapdeal launched services in 10 local languages for its mobile website. Rival Paytm rolled out services in Hindi a month later, and its founder explained that he wanted to ensure “our app isn’t just used for large transactions, but lots of small transactions”.
This expansion of online purchasing beyond a narrow elite is helping drive bullish predictions for Indian ecommerce: Morgan Stanley predicts that total sales will hit $137bn by 2020, up from $11bn in 2013.
Foreign companies are also embracing Indian languages as part of their drive to “localise” in this crucial but idiosyncratic digital market.
Chinese internet company Baidu added four Indian languages in March, while Google has released smartphone keyboards in languages ranging from Assamese to Bengali over the past year. Last week, US-based online streaming service Netflix announced plans to produce its first Hindi drama.
“Not knowing English and not being literate is not the same,” points out Meghashyam Karanam, a former Microsoft employee who this year set up Megdap, a company that offers to translate large volumes of content into Indian languages for app and website developers.
Co-founder Pradeep Parappil says its machine-learning software could help with the translation problems initially experienced by the likes of Snapdeal, which quietly dropped its first attempt at Hindi support after launching in 2014.
But some start-ups are bypassing English altogether, building services tailored for Indians who want to use their native tongue online. Among these are Hindi social networking sites such as ShabdaNagari, whose founder Amitesh Mishra argues that while Facebook offers functions in Indian languages, users are still confronted by a maze of English-language content on the site.
Mooshak, a recently launched microblogging site, offers new opportunities for India’s Twitter-addicted politicians and celebrities to reach the country’s heartland, says founder Anurag Gaur.
“They speak Hindi in the field, but English on Twitter,” he says. “If you go on Twitter and type in Hindi you feel lost, because the people who matter are all typing in English.”
Mooshak and ShabdaNagari are still in their infancy, each with fewer than 12,000 regular users, but their founders argue they have arrived at the perfect moment to ride the rising tide of vernacular internet use. According to a recent IAMAI report, the amount of Hindi content on the web increased 94 per cent last year, five times faster than the pace for English content, albeit from a far smaller base.
One factor impeding further growth, the report said, was the fact that many non-English speaking users have no knowledge of the vernacular offerings that are increasingly available.
One of the few mobile apps already to have achieved scale with local-language offerings is Dailyhunt, an aggregator of online news. In five years, the app has amassed 27m users viewing 3.5bn articles each month — of which only 5 per cent are in English, says its chief executive Virendra Gupta.
“The next 400m people who come online — they may come in three, four, five years, I don’t care — but it will definitely happen,” he says. “And we want to be their first port of access and a big part of their consumption. People need some amount of familiarity when they come online.”