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A Landscape Study of Bharat Startups: The Importance of Building in Local Languages



We at CIIE.CO looked at 25 Bharat startups in 2020. Here, building tech in local languages appears to be a boosting factor in the adoption of the same. In India, about 10% of people are comfortable using English as a language, and startups in Fintech have also been able to service only 43% of the internet user base, most of which operate in English.


A KPMG-Google report (2017) found the Indian language internet user base grew at a CAGR of 41% from 2011 to 2016. From 234 million users, the Indian language internet is projected to target 536 million users by 2021. Although English remains an aspirational language for learning in schools, startups have seen wider acceptance for Hindi when it comes to technology adoption.


Nuances in the language is a challenge


Research shows that adopting an app offering products or services is much more likely when offered in the local languages of people who are not fluent in English. It is important to note that using an app in one’s local language breaks a major barrier to effective communication and also makes a potential user less hesitant to try the platform, and improve its ease of use. However, it is essential to note that one cannot just translate from one language to another.


The nuances of each local language cannot be shunned and need to be adhered to. For instance, even if an app is in the Hindi language, a user from Bihar and another from Punjab may not be comfortable with it as their dialects would highly differ. In our interactions with some startup founders, we realised that building in a vernacular language is one of the solutions to solve for adoption, yet navigating the nuances of dialect remains a challenge. For instance, digital payment apps that come with a Hindi language interface are expected to scale adoption. However, a significant chunk of users in Uttar Pradesh who are native Bhojpuri speakers face difficulty in interacting with the app in Hindi.


There are 22 official Indian languages, 13 scripts, and over 750 dialects. Even Hindi, which is the official language, has dialects that change over geographies. The complications for a startup building in local languages arise from the sheer number of main languages and are made more complicated because of various dialects.


Audio-Video as Content


When it comes to Indian languages, the consumption of content happens primarily in the form of audio-video content and not written content. Startups could use Audio-video content to build product awareness, promote engagement, and interact with users. With translation tools becoming more available, startups can begin experimenting with content X language pairs alternate language pairs – for instance, create the app interface in English and the video content in vernacular.


Interesting use-cases of Bharat startups


Most startups catering to the Bharat market have incorporated local languages on their platform. No sector comes across as an exception in this observation as even apps such as Dailyhunt (entertainment) to RailYatri (Travel) are in vernacular. BharatPe already has an alternate language feature in Hindi; during the Covid 19 lockdown, they launched a voice-based application to help retailers minimize touching their phones. The app version also features a voice alert in the local language for transactions completed.


Voice and audio content in vernacular languages form the core business at ShareChat. ShareChat is an original video content sharing app with a userbase of 1.5 billion. It allows users to upload and share content in 15 languages. That is, it is a social media platform for people who are more comfortable interacting in their native vernacular language.


ShopX, a platform that helps small retailers access premium brands, is available in 9 languages. Its B2B2C model has two interfaces – one for the retailer and one for the customer. Along with a loyalty point system, the app is also available in vernacular languages. Thus, it builds credibility and engagement with both kinds of its users.


Kahatabook, an app in digital ledgering services, further relies on word-of-mouth publicity and recommendations amongst retailers. With a database of 60,000 users, no doubt its availability in ten vernacular languages contributes to its popularity.


Meesho and DealShare, both social commerce apps, are available in three vernacular languages. This has helped them rope in a large user base of the price-sensitive customer.


In edtech, DoubtNut is a startup that invites students to upload pictures of their doubts in classroom subjects such as math or science. According to the co-founders, almost 90% of their users are from non-metro towns and cities, which they credit to being available in 11 languages.


Voice assistance in vernacular languages is an upcoming area that shows good tech adoption potential. Bharat startups should definitely explore the segment.


For the User


For the user of a Bharat app, engaging with it in vernacular language is an empowering experience. While privacy and data usage is a valid concern, the ease of operating and consuming content in one’s own language makes it highly authentic as well. On their part, startups need to be transparent and accurate while dealing with privacy and consent issues. Thus, it will help build awareness and trust among their users.


With a large population residing in rural geographies, most potential tech users in India will look towards startups building in their local languages. Are Bharat startups up for the challenge? That remains to be seen.



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