Tuesday, December 15, 2009

India Needs Public Policy And Service Innovation And Not Web 2.0 Companies

The second most populous country with the fourth largest spending power, India, saw a surprising 7.9% YOY GDP growth well above the expectations of 6.3%. The Indian stock market recovered much quicker since the US financial meltdown. In fact one of my friends who oversees sales of a European earthmoving equipments company in India complained that the European manufacturers have not increased their production to meet the increased demand in India due to the faster economic recovery, especially in the infrastructure sector. When I switch on a news channel in India I hear all about incentivizing manufacturing companies to increase indigenous production that will fuel the growth of the industrial sector. I also see commercials ranging from baked potato chips to a service to transfer money using virtual currency on a mobile phone targeted to the fast growing middleclass. The marketers have no problem understanding the rich and the middle-class of India and designing the products for them.

What I don’t see is entrepreneurs catering to the people at the bottom of the pyramid. Vivek Wadhwa’s guest posts on TechCrunch stirred quite a controversy especially the one on the “reverse brain-drain” - the Indians returning to India from US. NYTimes recently carried a story on the innovation pace in India. There are more angel investors in India than even before. A few people from Infosys have started their own VC fund. This is all good but I don’t think that the entrepreneurs are pursuing the right opportunities. I have written before about the opportunities to cater to the people at the bottom of the pyramid and I will repeat again that it will be a huge mistake to equate India’s needs with those of the developed countries. India has a little over 300 million people that are below poverty line (450 million by international definition – who earns less than $1.25). What it simply means that at least the one-third population of India has no guarantee that there will be food at the table and access to affordable healthcare. India has significant challenges in getting the basic services right and educating its people and providing healthcare to them. These people will do just fine without Web 2.0 companies.

Here is an example and an opportunity for the kind of innovation that I am referring to:

Electronic voting machine

India has been trying for many years to improve its voting process where the votes are regularly rigged in many parts of the country – it’s called “booth capturing”. The ex. Chief Election Commissioner N. Gopalaswamy (also father of a close friend) helped revolutionize the voting process with the introduction of electronic voting machines with a tiny little feature called “12 second delay” that made all the difference. This delay prevented the votes to be “stuffed” even if the machine was physically compromised. The machine also has an algorithm to recognize a pattern to detect the votes being cast every 12 seconds and simply discard them if needed. This is a great example where technology is being used to fight the corrupt behavior during the elections.

Universal Healthcare Card

This is a huge opportunity. The Universal Healthcare Card is an attempt to insure 300 million people (below the poverty line) with the cost of $1B, which is a small fraction of overall healthcare spending of $45B, which in turn is only 4% of the GDP. This policy has administrative and operational challenges to fight corruption and to ensure that people below poverty line actually benefit out of this plan. I see this as a socioeconomic problem that technology can help solve to provide accessible healthcare to the people who really need them without any pilferage.

What India really needs the most is the entrepreneurs who can get involved in the public policy and create service innovation to remove the fundamental roadblocks that India has on its way to become a developed nation. We need more people like Nandan Nilekani who left Infosys to spearhead the efforts of the national Unique Identification Project. He is an ultra smart entrepreneur who understands the challenges associated with such a project, has deep passion for public policy, and is fully committed to make things happen.

Are you an entrepreneur up for such a challenge?