Jio has opened a portal to a new world, will the development sector walk through it?
The development sector continues to grapple in the dark while rural India is lighting up to bright mobile screens and colourful ringtones of the latest Bollywood music. Reliance Jio has brought Indian consumer’s communication frame to a tipping point where buying new mobile set is cheap and using internet is free (at least for 6 months). With rural women asking for advice through google voice search, young boys and girls uploading hundreds of thousands of videos on YouTube and Tik Tok everyday, with over 2 hours of average gaming time in small towns, with 290 million rural internet users growing at 5 times the urban users, the future is happening now. The opportunities are presenting here. And yet, the development sector might only view this unique phenomenon in hindsight, trying to play the catch-up game with the elegant economics, aspirational technology, people’s desires and communities’ behaviours that are changing exponentially. The topography of how we will perceive solutions to endemic problems is in rapid transition and old moulds need to be broken to leverage technology for social and behaviour change.
Civilizations and cultures don’t propel ahead because of new inventions or unique innovations. Rather we grow and thrust forward because of the mass adoption and application of those inventions. Industrial revolution did not begin with the invention of the first steam engine, production line and spinning jenny. Rather, the revolution emerged due mass adoption (massification) of those technologies. But what has changed now is the rate of massification. While phones took 5 decades in US to go from 10% adoption to 90%, mobile phones took just a decade to reach the same number. The massification of mobile phones has taken time to reach rural India but what is happening now will change the way we (dev sector) understand the world around us.
Chapter 1: The Entry of Jio
In 2017, in the mobile market ruled by the Vodaphone- Airtel duo, Reliance Jio was a late entrant. But, Jio had a plan. And it was really elegant in its simplicity. First, change the playing field. Second, open the gates of the internet executive club to ‘everyone’. Third, don’t let them leave. [These strategies were based on two fundamental effects described in Network Economics — ‘Network effects’ which stipulates that the value of the network increases exponentially with the increase in size of the network and ‘Lock-in Effects’ which stipulates that once people join a network and start deriving value from that network, they get locked in to that network ].
Change the playing Filed. We understand the mobile market as 3 broad categories of phone handsets- basic phones, feature phones and smart phones. The smart phones have internet connectivity, advanced functionality like access to Microsoft office and built in, pre-loaded apps for health, finances and entertainment. Jio chose to do a cross-over. They launched a basic phone with internet capability. It created a new category of internet-enabled basic phones. And just like that, mobile phones with smart capabilities became affordable to millions of Indians. At Rs.1000, the Jio phone is cheaper than the next cheapest phone Samsung Guru which does not even support internet — which one do you think people will buy?
As a late entrant to the game, Jio had access to the latest technology developed in more recent times that simply did not exist earlier. And they converted the late-entrant disadvantage to an opportunity. Jio Internet service is fourth generation (4G) of mobile technology that enables the delivery of high-speed internet services. With over 100,000 mini-towers Jio is the only operator which has deployed pan-India LTE (long term evolution) network, giving it tremendous capacity advantage. To us, the consumers, it translates to better, faster, wider wireless network. So, Jio offered a high speed high quality mobile internet on a cheap handset. We saw small town folks gifting a Jio phone to their wives and loved ones. We saw people buying Jio as a second phone, because it was cheap and had great network! The sales were hot from the beginning. In about 3 years after launch Jio’s network covers 200,000 villages with about 75% population coverage. But here is the clincher. With Jio phone comes free mobile data for 6 months. That sweetened the deal!
Open the Internet Gates- Jio phones that come pre-loaded with four apps-Google voice search, Youtube, Facebook, Whatsapp and free data for 6 months fuelled the three things we desire most — Information, Entertainment and Communication. Free music downloads, buzzing whatsapp groups, updated FB profiles and Youtube mania became a sudden rage. We saw young boys and girls in ragged clothes sitting on a roadside lost in their screens and earplugs. More importantly, video calls between families living in rural areas with their sons and husbands working in urban areas became a common phenomenon. In 2019, the rural market for mobile internet leap-frogged at 35% growth compared to lacklustre wriggle of 7% of a saturated urban market.
Don’t let them leave- Unlike its predecessors, Jio went after the difficult rural audience that was unexposed, uneducated, unprivileged. To Jio’s rural customers, internet-enabled, affordable phones was like tasting blood. They were hooked and there was no going back. And that is fundamentally changing lifestyles, habits and consumption trends in rural India.
Chapter 2: The Jio-Google-Facebook Effect
While trying to capture market share, Jio has brought us to the tipping point of change, where we can touch millions of people effectively and efficiently; where individuals can be entertained and educated according to their needs and preferences; where we can propel ahead at a pace never possible before. Imagine a rural mother who has no exposure to health information except for the sporadic visits from an ASHA (community health worker). Until yesterday, she believed and heeded to the advice of her mother-in-law on how to manage her 2 year old’s diarrhoea. Today she can ask Google (vernacular voice search) too and find a whole lot more about the disease, it’s causes and it’s treatment. Whether she can do anything with that knowledge, increase her agency, defy the undeniable norms and negotiate change is something to be further explored. And we will, in a minute!
In the meantime, lets visit her husband who toils on his soil all year long. Today, we support him by providing correct information on farming techniques, seed quality, market rates for his yield through IVRs (interactive voice response). We try to create farmer communities at a local level through sharing real life challenges and success stories that are recorded and shown on Pico Projectors. Five years back, these were big innovations. Today, when an increasing number of farmers have internet on their finger tips, would creating local, geo-based farmer’s community on Facebook not be the obvious thing to do? On Facebook communities, they can record voice messages, click pictures, share videos of best practices, get on-demand market prices and much more. Instant gratification and value creation at its social-good best. Not unlike the Ice bucket challenge, competitions to share the best practices, highest yield or biggest problem solved could be made to go viral. This would encourage high reach at low investment, and continued farmer engagement. And for the first time, give them a stage to shine on, to connect with people beyond the village and the block. India is the largest user of Facebook in the world with 241 million users. The truth is that FB is already being used by rural Indians. For connecting, for sharing, for entertaining. We need to recognise and explore this opportunity as a potent medium to reach millions of farmers, connect them in their communities, empower them to feel the thrill of sharing, liking, commenting and doing better at their jobs.
While it may be easier to tackle knowledge based problems in agricultural domain, challenges encountered to improve health, family planning and woman’s empowerment are much more nuanced and rooted in social and gender norms. One such movement is called Self Help Groups (SHGs) focuses on empowerment of women. The idea stems from the reality that while underprivileged individuals may have no voice ‘alone’, they can bring about change though ‘numbers’. Started as a financial inclusion program, these are moderated voluntary groups of women (and in some cases, men) that come together regularly to discuss common problems, savings, credit and loans. Other than financial engagement, SHG members also share other happenings in and around their lives. They discuss health, nutrition and hygiene among others. The group moderator and the book keeper are literate and always have a phone.
Today 25.4 million SHGs are functioning in India representing 59 million rural women members. But they still have to break out of the threshold of their village, block and district. SHGs are based on the idea of collectivization. The idea that many can have more agency together than an individual on her own. But an average SHG has 10–12 members. Online groups of SHGs through the membership of their representative moderators could expand the horizons of their possibilities and choices. It would inform them of how tricky situations are being managed by other groups and how they stand in a larger community. It could help rally them and galvanise them towards bigger ambitions and larger leaps. WhatsApp group of a single SGH members would prime them to be change makers. While negotiating delayed marriage or continued education for girls in their own families, SHG members will find their support group a finger tap away.
WhatsApp groups have been popular from inception and they are preferred by women as they are more private and exclusive. Rural women claim that unlike FB, where you can be reached by friends of friends, WhatsApp is more intimate. Almost everyone who has access to internet enabled phone is using WhatsApp, and around 39% of rural Whatsapp user are using the app for 1–2 hours a day with 26 % exchanging 11–26 messages daily. SHGs can convert this potent app into a medium of change at a mass scale. They can conduct multiple meetings virtually, discuss problems in real time, find solutions with a larger collective. Currently, WhatsApp is used for forwarding hate speech, fake news and friendly chit-chat. But would the dev world acknowledge that rural India is living in the virtual WhatsApp world. We need to recognise the potent reality that collective collaboration through social media may be the new weapon in championing the sentiment of ‘collective power’ that SHGs were founded on.
But, let’s go back to the lonely young mother with a sick 2 year old. To her, we want to provide correct and reliable information. And to reach her, we have large scale rural activation initiatives; behaviour change programs and government systems of health workers, ASHAs and FLWs (frontline health workers). And yet she stays in complete information poverty. Because reaching the wide congested landscape of India is difficult — mass media reach is low, health workers are not motivated to make home visits and mid-media channels are expensive not scalable. To reach a rural mother and explain the germ theory, the severe risk of dehydration and easy cures and prevention of diarrhoea is a challenge that is expensive on systems, resources and time. In his book The Art of Persuasion, Simon Lancaster writes that to bring change- repeat, repeat, repeat; but the dev sector is still struggling with reach, reach, reach.
However, we know that increasing number of women have access to mobile and internet, even if they don’t own one. With internet-enabled mobile phones we could begin reaching them by creating and curating you-tube videos with correct information. SEO optimisation would ensure that the credible videos show as the top five ranking and have the highest reach. Creating content is expensive and time consuming in contrast to curating already available creative content and enabling content discovery through effective search engine optimisation (SEO). And it ensures that if the young mother has internet, she can seek the information that she needs. The videos are likely to become a great credible negotiator with MILs and husbands to do things a new way, breaking away from the age old beliefs and practices. Chatbots, built on google voice platform of FB messenger can allow interactivity and decision support along a behaviour change user journey.
The tangents of future are unpredictable and unlimited. But we know that the portal to the future is open now. And we can engage with the rural masses in a new exciting way. A way that political parties, media houses, PR agencies and online advertisers are already doing. The opportunity will not remain forever. None ever does. Soon, Tiktok fad might die, new technologies might emerge, rural communities might disengage. Will we continue to ask for evidence for innovation; do pilots for interventions that obviously require scale to succeed; will insist on expensive time consuming RCTs (Randomised Control Trial) for tech-solutions that may become outdated by the time results come out? What we do with this opportunity, here and now, may be the legacy that millions may bear.