Ideas & Debate

How low-cost Internet creates wealth in India

Cheap internet democratises information by ensuring that it is accessible to many citizens. FILE PHOTO | NMG
Cheap internet democratises information by ensuring that it is accessible to many citizens. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Incredible India. That is the marketing slogan that great country uses on its advertising campaigns on international media such as CNN.

You can’t describe India to anyone in less than a few hours or several precious newspaper paragraphs but I can summarise my recent January visit to the city of New Delhi thus: it is incredibly populated, incredibly progressive, incredibly diverse and incredibly cold during the winter.

The National Capital Territory of Delhi has a population of almost 22 million people. That’s at least four million more than the giant metropolis of Mumbai. Inevitably, Delhi has one of the highest pollution rates in the world.

In the district in which we were staying, very few of the roads have marked lanes and even where the lanes are marked, drivers do not maintain lane discipline.

The driving rules are fairly simple: find your space, own it even if it means coming to within a bacterium’s finger width between you and the next car, and just keep on moving. Consequently, the roadside kerbs are about a foot high to avoid the universal temptation to over-lap and lane climbers.

While there is fairly good network of highways (which in Kenyan-speak would be termed as super highways since anything bigger than two lanes warrants an entry into the Kenyan mega project hall of fame), Delhi motor cycle riders — many of whom carry the same DNA as their Nairobi counterparts — have absolutely no issue riding into the darkness of a highway underpass facing oncoming traffic. With no headlights!

Delhi’s stomach churning traffic heaves in unsynchronised waves of pollution-generating saloon cars, buses, trucks, motorcycles and taxis. In all that madness we never encountered a single accident, nor found anyone shaking their fists or flipping birdies at each other.

Anil, our designated taxi driver, drove a gas-propelled Maruti. We asked him to take us to a mall and he zipped around for 20 minutes before coming to a triumphant halt in front of a sterile building, faceless, except for a solitary staircase that rolls its steel tongue out to greet us.

Up another staircase and we then stumbled upon multiple shops selling fabric, suits that are stitched in 24 hours, jewelry, scarves, handbags, and beautifully hand-woven rugs. Around us were Africans of various extractions in multiple stages of retail nirvana as they did mental conversions of the prices.

Kapur, a 25-year-old fast-talking salesman, latched himself to us and never left our side until we had made several purchases of various goods.

He speaks token Swahili, randomly interspersing his sentences with kabisa, asante, sawa sawa and kwaheri which was enough to tell us that he’s had multiple East African clients cross his slick salesman’s path.

Back at the hotel, our retail therapy curbed only by the dread of facing the inscrutable faces of the Customs officials at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport upon our return, we found a very chatty waiter Amir as we ordered dinner.

The next day was his off-day and he happily told us how he was going to spend the day catching up on Netflix and Amazon Prime shows. Say what now? “Yes madam. Internet is very cheap in India, I only pay 900 Indian rupees a month for wi-fi at home.” For Sh1,440 a month, Amir our waiter, had high speed Internet in his house. It goes without saying that in the 21st century access to internet, just like access to water, is life.

Cheap internet democratises information by ensuring that it is accessible to a far wider population reach and provides a fantastic opportunity for local content producers to find markets for both entertainment and educational content.

One observation I made in India is that due to its sheer size, a lot of content on television was local as there were multiple news channels as well as movie and entertainment channels in Hindi and local dialects.

Anil, our taxi driver, had his phone on his dashboard most times, tuned interchangeably between local music videos and local movie channels. And yes, before you judge Anil, ceaseless traffic warrants distracting entertainment.

The bigger opportunity I saw was how low-cost internet can generate a whole vertical supply chain just from local content provision because at the end of the day, your ordinary mwananchi relates faster to stories that narrate his own reality. You don’t have to look far: Nollywood and Bollywood are live examples.