Shortly after reaching Chennai’s main railway station, I grabbed a pre-paid auto rickshaw to IIT Madras. I had a meeting with Ashutosh Sinha from Villgro Stores. The meeting turned out to be quite thought-provoking. For example, Ashutosh brought up that when you think about the various technologies in the space where Essmart wants to operate, you will settle on four main categories: lighting, cooking, cooling, and water. Most of these categories, if not all of them, are electricity-dependent. That is, the mainstream solutions to addressing these problems are dependent on electricity. Thus, technologies designed to be powered off an alternative power source may become obsolete in a few years once rural areas get electricity. End users are seeing this as an issue, as they want to invest in technologies that they believe will be around in the next five to ten years. That way, there is a way to service and replace their purchases.
Ashutosh challenged me about Essmart’s concept as a technology distributor. Although he agreed that rural distribution is a huge problem (he knows so, through his experience with BP and through operating Villgro Stores), perhaps it is the technologies themselves that require more careful consideration. Ashutosh said that quite often, the design of what Essmart calls “essential technologies” is second-rate. Designers have begun to put affordability at the forefront, and they trade off with quality. Designers should be putting functionality first and then figure out how to make the technology less expensive. Or, they should focus more on financing schemes for technology that actually works.
We both agreed that marketing is a huge issue. No one wants to be told, “You’re poor, so you get this technology that is made specifically for people like you and is different from what rich people are using.” We at Essmart understand this completely. We don’t want to sell frills, but we do want to project our products as those that make happy and prosperous rural households.