For Satyapal Chandra, Rohan Singh, and Abhishek Singh, three engineering students from Bihar, coming up with innovation was no challenge. Their challenge was the language barrier – not knowing English cut them off from the ecosystem of start-ups, VC funding and market launches. Their solution – MagTapp, an app that helped people access the Internet in English while providing simultaneous translations into Hindi. This is just one example how innovation by rural entrepreneurs can unleash the potential of India outside the metros – provided we get it right.
If you Google ‘Innovation in India’, it is quite likely that you will get several search results for the term ‘jugaad’, i.e. make-do innovation. While jugaad has been celebrated as the symbol of India’s ability to innovate and also resilience in the face of adversity, let us make it clear – it is not true innovation. True innovation is invention – a solution that finds a technological solution that is viable in the long term, scalable for mass manufacture and easy to replicate elsewhere in the world. In other words, true innovation does not just solve a problem; it expands the economy with new goods and new jobs.
Let me first speak of some hot fields and promising innovators. Later in this article, I will identify the major challenges facing rural innovators in India, and potential solutions that will spur start-up culture.
Hotspots of Rural Innovation
The story of the education start-up Byju’s becoming a unicorn is now part of several B-school case studies, but it still caters to metro audiences which are more familiar with technology and English. While metro-based start-ups, such as Classle (Chennai), ConceptOwl (Thiruvananthapuram) and Hippocampus (Bengaluru) are aimed at rural markets, they are being given good competition by start-ups based in smaller towns like LearnFatafat (Bhusawal) and Learning Delight (Rajkot). The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed classroom learning to the video conferencing sphere, creating room for innovations that can tap into slow internet speeds, small screen sizes and usability in Indian languages. The field is a rich testing ground for various models of education, and the e-learning market is projected to grow to US$ 8.6 billion by 2026.
The COVID-19 pandemic only served to heighten a public health crisis in rural India, which is already plagued by lack of access to medicines, hospitals and qualified medical practitioners, and limited infrastructure such as ambulances. While medicine delivery apps like 1MG and remote consulting apps like Practo are making their presence felt in urban areas, smaller towns and villages have nothing comparable. The Kota-based start-up MedCords and Udaipur-based Karma Healthcare are pioneering a hybrid set up where rural clinics run by a nurse are linked up to urban centres where doctors and specialists can offer telemedicine consultation. Tie-ups with agribusinesses such as IFFCO, which have a dense supply network, assist in last mile delivery. Other hot areas to look will be in rural cold chain and medicine delivery, dental care, rural mental health and mobile hospitals.
Last mile fintech has been an area of focus in the last decade, both by banks and NBFCs on one side and by individual entrepreneurs on the other. Other fields that are looking promising have been education financing (e.g. Chennai-based Shiksha Financial), point of sale and inventory management set ups (e.g. KIRA, StoreKey) and agri-sales (e.g. Catalyst Labs, which aims to bypass middlemen in agricultural supply chain). Nevertheless, high stakes crop financing, which is subjected to the risks of