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This is India

Posted by Sinead in Digital on Thu 8 Oct, 2015

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Greeting from Mumbai! I’m one week into a two week startup tour of India funded, very kindly, by the British Council and led by the amazing IndoGenius. So far we have heard from speakers like Kumar Iyer, the British Deputy High Commissioner on opportunities for UK companies in India; Ambi Parameswaren, head of FCB one of the biggest advertising agencies in India; students and start-ups at IIT Bombay, one of the leading technical colleges in the world; and the founders of Zone Startups, a entrepreneurship incubator in Mumbai. And that was only the first two days! It’s not been all work though. We’ve had a 5am cycle ride thought the city streets to see how Bombay wakes up; a tour of the infamous Dharavi “slum” where 1 million of Mumbai’s residents are crammed into a 2km square space; and a trip to village to see life in rural India.

I visited India a few years ago to do my yoga teaching training in Goa and then spent time in Kerala. I loved India when I visited and thought I knew what India was about, but now I realise I only scratched the surface. India is simple and complex; it’s a land of extreme wealth and the poorest of the poor; it’s a land where people from all walks of life, religions and languages coexist in relative harmony; it’s a land where technology adoption is moving at a rapid pace, and yet 50% of the population don’t have a toilet.

Over the next few weeks I want to share some of my thoughts on what makes India special and highlight some of what I have learned about the opportunities here for people wanting to work in or with the world’s fastest growing economy.

This is India.

In 1820, the Indian economy was 10 times the size of the US economy. By 1879, they were on par. After India became independent from the British in 1947, the Indian economy had shrunk to a sixth of the size and today it stands at a third of the size. Today India is officially the fastest growing economy in the world at 7% and the economy is predicted to be back on par with the US in 2040.

Although technically India is one country, it’s more useful to think of India as a collection of different countries. India has 22 official languages. 22! Although English is the lingua franca of business, there is a myth that all Indians know English. In fact, only 10 to 15% of the population can read and write English with only the top 1% speaking it as their first language. It is true that speaking English is a passport to prosperity. Indian families will save up to send their children to an English speaking school to get them started on a better life. Higher education, for the most part, is also taught in English.

India has the youngest population in the world with over 50% of the population of 1.25 billion being under the age of 25. Presently, only 20% of young people in India go to university. The number of graduates in India is now equal to the USA and China but with the youth population growing, by 2050 India will have 90 million more graduates of working than USA and 70 million more than China.

All education is not created equal in India. The Indian Institutes of Technology and Management (IITs and IIMs) comprise the 15 most competitive universities to get into in India. Young people will start studying for their competitive exams at age 14 to try and get into an IIT. With only a one in 60 chance, they are more competitive than Oxford or Cambridge. These universities are a guaranteed route to success for Indian youth with graduates heading to jobs at the top IT firms in India like Infosys, Tata Consultancy Services and a host of fast growing startups. IIT Bombay produces the fourth most VC backed entrepreneurs after Stanford, Berkley and MIT. But the majority of young people don’t get to go to these universities. There are another 5,000 institutes that the remainder attend. These can be very good but many of these colleges have been set up to make profit for their founders rather than teach their learners, so it's not unknown for young people to graduate from a four year software engineering course without being able to write basic code.

In the next ten years 120 million new young people will enter the workforce. That’s 1 million youth every month! This is a huge opportunity and a huge challenge for India: an opportunity because at a time when the West is facing a shortage of technical talent, India is churning out thousands of software engineers every week; it’s a challenge because the pace of job creation has not caught up yet.

When we think of India we think of what are called the big “metros” – Mumbai, Dehli, Bangalore, Chennai etc. While it’s true that this megacities contain huge populations (Mumbai alone has over 20 million people and is growing fast), the majority of the population (85 to 90%) still live in rural areas and work in the agricultural sector. Incomes are low and are tied to the ups and downs of farming.

Mobile phone and mobile internet penetration is super high. Mobile accounts for 65% of India’s internet traffic and ranks second in the world with Nigeria being the highest. To put that in perspective, the UK’s internet traffic via mobile is only 23%. Fast broadband is rare in India still. Even in the metros, it can be impossible to find a wifi connection that works. Mobile data is cheap and abundant in India so Indians either just use their smartphone to access the internet or use it to tether or create a personal hotspot. 500 million new smartphone users are expected in the next five years in India. This has led to many Indian companies from e-commerce giants like Myntra to small start-ups to take a mobile-first approach - ie not develop a web platform but go straight to a mobile solution. The Indian government have realised that technology is the future of India and The Digital India programme is a flagship programme from the government of India with a vision to transform India into a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy.

One thing I’ve learned over the past week is that India is a country of complexities and contrasts. What holds true in one context can be proved false in the next. But one thing cannot be disputed: India is and will be a force to be reckoned with.

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