Reimagining India: Insights from business leaders on Asia’s other superpower

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The following are excerpts of essays in Reimagining India, McKinsey's new book that brings together leading thinkers from around the world to explore and debate the challenges and opportunities facing the country.

Although Indian consumers are eager to embrace global brands, they resent any hint of global corporate dominance. 

Muhtar Kent, chairman and CEO of The Coca-Cola Company:

We returned [to India] to rebuild our business in 1993 as economic reforms unleashed a period of robust growth. It was harder going than we’d imagined. We struggled at first to find and keep talented employees. It took us time to understand that small stores, many operated by families out of the front of their homes, were an unappreciated source of economic opportunity.

The key to this success has been learning to see the Indian market as it is, not as we wished it to be. We made it a point to understand our customers. India’s people still cherished long-held goals of self-sufficiency and sustainability—and those ideals were essential to our continued growth. Through careful study of how Indian consumers live—people all over the nation, not just those in cities—we learned that most are more likely to buy our products at a small family store than a big supermarket.

At the same time, we saw how a rising generation of young Indians, most of them raised without landline telecommunications infrastructure, has embraced wireless technologies and, in many ways, is leading the global revolution in mobile commerce.

Recognizing that small stores play a huge role in the lives of our customers has required us to do many things differently in India than we do in developed markets. We figured out, for example, that it wasn’t enough to provide small stores with Coke signs and teach them to display our products. Often, these stores had more basic concerns. Many couldn’t keep our drinks cold, because they weren’t connected to the electrical grid. More critically, small stores in India often are run by women, who have more difficulty than men in exercising economic rights like getting access to credit. We found we could help store owners address those and similar problems in ways that helped them, helped their communities, and also helped Coke.

One of my favorite examples of how we’re trying to come up with solutions tailored for the Indian market is eKOCool, a solar-powered mobile cooler we developed for use in the tens of thousands of rural Indian villages that lack electricity. The eKOCool looks a little like an ordinary pushcart, but it’s actually a sophisticated marriage of technology and local market savvy. Stores using our eKOCool solar coolers can stay open later and generate enough extra power to do double duty, recharging mobile phones or electric lanterns. We hope to distribute more than one thousand eKOCool carts to rural store owners in India by the end of 2013—and we have begun testing them in dozens of other countries.

Read the rest of Muhtar Kent’s essay.

We haven’t even begun to see the possibilities of India as a digitally connected society.

Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google:

To me, India is still well behind in the potential that it’s going to have with a connected society. India has about 120 million users on the Internet, which is less than 10 percent of the population. So we have no idea what is going to happen when the next 50, 60, 70 percent of the Indians—which represent a sixth of the world population, I might add—join the conversation.

One of the greatest things in the last decade has been the arrival of the modest-cost mobile phone for the developing world. People who do not have televisions, refrigerators, literally, stable bathroom situations, have mobile phones. And if they don’t have mobile phones, someone in their village has a mobile phone.

The general rule in these markets is that at a price point below $50, people will save up their money. They can pool their money together, they can do it for a village, and that will change the world. The other issue that India and other countries have is very high data rates, because there’s not enough competition in the telecommunications industry.

India’s addressing that by bringing in more competition for the LTE layers. But one of the simple solutions there is to have much more access to WiFi hotspots and the ability to be mobile between them. So even there, we have some solutions. I think there’s every reason to believe that in five to ten years, the majority of Indian citizens will have good access to the Internet.

And it’ll be modest in the sense that they’ll have a browser, they’ll have reasonable bandwidth—certainly nothing compared to what we will have in the same time. But it’s life-changing for them. That’s what’s important. Life-changing. Access to information they never had. Access to the world’s information. Access to all those languages. Access to pictures, the ability to take pictures of what’s going on around them as a security measure. On and on and on.

Read the rest of Eric Schmidt’s essay.

India is combining the growth of an emerging market with the openness of a freewheeling democracy

Fareed Zakaria, host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS and an editor-at-large for Time magazine:

Twenty years of strong economic growth have transformed the country. The Indian middle class now numbers more than 250 million; over 30 percent of the population of 1.2 billion lives in urban areas. And these numbers are growing fast. Indian movies are now often focused on this group, seen as young, aspiring, and filled with idealism and ambition.

Globalization has raised the expectations that this new urban middle class has for itself and its government. The opening of the Indian economy has exposed them to a new world—a world in which other countries like India are growing fast, building modern infrastructure, and establishing efficient government. Whereas they used to assume that to get rich one needed political connections, today they can dare simply to have good ideas and work hard. India is still a parochial country—for good reason, given its size and internal complexity—but this middle class sees no reason why its democracy shouldn’t work for them too.

Technology is giving them the power to make their voices heard, even when outnumbered by other interest groups. India is unusual in combining the growth of an emerging market with the openness of a freewheeling democracy. (China has the former but not the latter.) The result has been an information explosion. The country boasts more than 170 television news channels, in dozens of languages. Three-quarters of the population has mobile phones. Texting and similar methods have now become a routine way to petition government, organize protests, and raise awareness. The Aadhaar program (aadhaar means “foundation” in Hindi), spearheaded by India’s tech pioneer Nandan Nilekani, which will give every Indian a unique biometric identity, could have a much larger impact than imagined. Its stated goal is to make it possible for Indians to get the rights and benefits they deserve, without middlemen, corruption, or inefficiency blocking their path. But it could also make it possible for Indians to think of themselves for the first time as individuals, not merely members of a religion, caste, or tribe.

Read the rest of Fareed Zakaria’s essay.


Read the full coverage of Reimagining India: Unlocking the Potential of Asia’s Next Superpower on McKinsey Insights & Publications