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Missing a trick in India
15 Dec 2014
By Pattrick Smellie
It took Indian-born, Kiwi-educated entrepreneur Vinny Lohan two hours by train from the suburbs of “new” Mumbai to our meeting in the opulent surroundings of the Taj Palace Hotel, the black stone Victorian pile where an army of liveried staff tends not only the pampered guests’ every need, but a few they didn’t realize they had.
Like being handed a towel to dry your hands after a trip to the palatial lavatories.
Immediately outside the heavily secured grounds of the hotel, the hard scrabble of life for Indians at the bottom of the country’s 1.3 billion-strong social heap is confronting.
Bare-bottomed, dirty footed toddlers wriggle in their mothers’ laps on the pavement. Their brothers and sisters sleep on threadbare cotton sheets on the hard ground. Elderly women raise their hands to beg from the procession of tourists.
A cultured local tells me, over a glass of Australian Viognier: “We need them and they need us. It is an eco-system. Besides, Mr Modi will lift them up” – a reference to new Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose election in May is behind a surge in optimism among Indians who had despaired of the country’s drift under the previous government, led by the Congress Party, the dynastic outfit that has dominated post-independence Indian politics.
Lohan returned to this “new” India from New Zealand, where he moved with his parents in his teens, took an engineering degree at the University of Auckland and, while he was it, either won or was placed in two Microsoft global innovation challenges.
His first invention, OneBeep, invented a way to use radios, available in every Indian village, to create Internet connections for the low-cost tablets being widely distributed to Indian schoolchildren, but whose utility was compromised by the lack of web connectivity.
His second invention, which won the challenge this time, was driven by his own family’s experience of malaria.
OneBuzz both improved the supply chain for anti-malarial drugs and helped pinpoint the best use of insecticides to attack malaria-bearing mosquitoes.
Rural villages were often spraying indiscriminately, often running out before the job was done and leaving likely breeding grounds untouched.
Again, Vinny’s intention wasn’t to get rich, but to make the world a better place. OneBeep and OneBuzz are both open source platforms.
Armed by this time with his degree, he decided it was time to start a real business, but he couldn’t afford to pay New Zealand wages, so moved back to India, renting a house where he lives and works with a small team of developers in what sounds like a Mumbai version of the sitcom Silicon Valley.
Vinny’s latest scheme is harder to explain than the first two, but essentially seeks to meld the code and keyboard world of digital technology with the analog world of human processes of inquiry.
“The analog and digital worlds are still very far apart,” he says. “Digital is just used to store rather than process and analyse.”
At its simplest, think of it as returning to the unsurpassed utility of the pen, which was replaced by the keyboard because the pen isn’t digitally “smart”.
“Keyboards have changed the way we think,” he says. “We are recreating the relationship between the pen and the brain.”
The concept is elusive, but imagine a platform that ordered every Google search you ever made on a particular subject into something more coherent than a list of URL’s, and organized them on whatever device you happened to be using at the time.
Smart, sharp, intense and almost scarily focused, Vinny remembers New Zealand as “heaven” compared to the challenges of life in India.
But like the many Indians I met in a whirlwind mission through Delhi and Mumbai in early November, the goodwill towards this country is palpable.
It could be the shared love of cricket, it may help that we’re not British, or it could just be, as Vinny suggests, that being white still helps, despite it being more than 60 years since India gained independence from the British.
Whatever the reason, doors opened at the highest levels of Indian industry for the tiny trade mission I accompanied and among some of the country’s most senior political and economic commentators for me as I tried to get a grasp on the Modi phenomenon.
With two-way trade of just over $1 billion, India is this country’s 18th largest trading partner, yet it has an economy and population that is comparable to that of China, which has leapt to be New Zealand’s biggest trade partner, with annual two-way trade topping $20 billion.
The potential for the Indian relationship to be far larger is obvious, albeit as the world’s largest producer of dairy products, India isn’t that keen on competition from Fonterra under a free trade agreement.
After a decade of stagnation and looking inwards, India is on the move. It will never be as organized as China – democracies aren’t like that. But its chaos may also be masking opportunity for New Zealand in a country brimming with smart, entrepreneurial people like Vinny Lohan, 130 million of whom speak English.
India was the subject of the New Zealand government’s first “NZ Inc” strategy, back in 2011, but it fell into a hole after attempts to get a free trade agreement under way all but petered last year.
It’s now time to dust off that work. The rest of the world has noticed that India is awake. As the debate about New Zealand’s over-reliance on trade with China heats up, India can be part of the answer. We risk missing a trick if we don’t re-engage vigorously and soon.
Pattrick Smellie is co-founder of independent business news service BusinessDesk. As an ardent opponent of petty fascism, he finds it amusing that baggage tags for Bombay abbreviate to BOM. His travel to India was assisted by the Asia New Zealand Foundation.