Rural Indians are fast becoming internet savvy — a recent study by Nielsen showed that as many as 352 million of the country’s 646 million active internet users reside in rural India or what is often termed as ‘Bharat.’ This is about 20% higher when compared with the 294 million internet users from urban India.
The pandemic, for one, has accelerated the pace of internet adoption in rural India. As authorities resorted to intermittent lockdowns and restrictions to tame the surge in infections, consumers across the country relied on e-commerce services. In fact, e-tailers like Flipkart, Amazon and Snapdeal have been able to make inroads into nondescript places like Tawang, Jhumri Telaiya, Mokochung and Guntur, annual festive sales data shared by the platforms over the past two years have revealed.
Availability of pocket-friendly smartphones and a spate of initiatives undertaken by the government to augment and widen the coverage of internet connectivity in far flung areas have also worked in rural India’s favour.
“The numbers, however, should be seen through the lens of total population which is higher in rural India,” Dolly Jha, managing director at Nielsen India tells Fortune India.
As the population is higher in the region, more of the internet users are now sitting in rural India. In terms of penetration of active internet users, urban India is still leading with a 59% share. Rural India lags with a 41% share. Simply put, although the population of rural India is higher than urban India, the number of active internet users compared to the total population is still lower, translating into lower penetration.
Rural India is almost at par with its urban counterpart when it comes to categories like social networking, video calling and consumption of OTT (over-the-top) platforms. In fact more than 80% of users with access to the internet subscribe to social networking, largely messaging and video calling services. Cheap data prices have made it easy for the masses to connect with their network through platforms like WhatsApp that enables both voice and video call besides messaging. Social media platforms like Facebook even come pre-loaded in many smartphones across price brackets these days.
But Bharat still has a long way to go when it comes to adoption of online learning, online payments and even online shopping for that matter. Penetration of e-commerce when seen in context of the overall retail market is still very low in India, estimated to be in single-digits. The lack of proper infrastructure connectivity and clear demarcation of delivery addresses often make it difficult to ship orders in certain pockets of rural areas. Only about 12% of rural users with access to the internet use online shopping platforms against 22% in urban India, data compiled by Nielsen showed. Companies are partnering with kiranas who are well versed with the locality of their native areas to resolve this crisis.
“Rural consumers are fast trying to catch up with the urban consumers. Many more online activities like payments, shopping will become fairly mainstream in the rural areas in the coming years, if not months. I am extremely bullish,” says Jha.
Emergence of a wide bouquet of vernacular apps across categories and roll out of more budget smartphones will spur internet usage in rural India, says Jha. Jio and Google have already rolled out cheap android smartphone JioPhone Next into the market. The yearning (among rural consumers) to have an individual smartphone is something that is only going to increase, say experts.
Also, more rural women will want to come within the fold of the internet “because an improved accessibility for them will really enable them to do many things not only for themselves but also for the household starting from banking to shopping to online classes for their children,” says Jha. Already, one in every three females in rural India are actively using the internet.