Last week I returned from another 6 day trip through rural India. This time I went to markets in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. The idea of going to these markets was to have more one on one conversation with rural customers and since I am fluent in Bengali and Tamil, these two regions seemed ideal.
I started off with WB, in an area that is about 3 hours drive from Kolkata city, where I was staying as a base. I was visiting Kolkata after many years so I was quite excited about this visit. The markets I went to were very poor with poor infrastructure from the main roads/highways to the interiors where the villages were located amidst paddy fields and the occasional betel leaf plantation. In all the markets I went to, I had to walk a good bit to reach the village since the car would not go in beyond a point. Here I found villagers needed a lot of counseling on basic healthcare. It was sad to see that these people were almost stuck in their way of life and could not hope for change for a number of reasons, primarily because of the hand to mouth existence. I came away realizing that the little kids I saw playing in the mud would grow up in that same atmosphere, without clean sanitation and drinking water, that there was no hoping that the village would change in a few years. I suppose I shouldn’t say this, but I felt that they needed clean facilities more than premium laundry detergent, but that’s just me.
Next I went to my home state, TN. My Tamil is not the best, since I’ve only ever spoken urban Tamil, so I was a little apprehensive. But what I saw in rural TN totally blew me away. I went to a few villages outside of Madurai, a bustling temple town south of Chennai and en route to Kanyakumari, India’s southernmost tip of land. Here the villages had excellent infrastructure and facilities. People were very aware of products, their benefits and of the tenets of basic healthcare, sanitation, and hygiene and overall healthy living. All homes had at least one television and cell phone, all in the same mud-brick houses with thatched roofs. All homes also had cable, which meant that my grandmother in Chennai and the Shakti Amma’s mother-in-law in rural Madurai watched the same soap every afternoon. I saw one house that had a complete LG home theater system – my apartment in C’ville does not have a tele! A number of village men were in the military and deployed in places as far away as Punjab. The biggest surprise however came from the products that sold in these villages. I went with the Shakti Amma from home to home in the village, as she sold Unilever products in the tiniest packaging I’ve ever seen. She sold Dove and Pears and all varieties of laundry detergent. She even sold fabric softener, how do you like that?! That morning, she sold 15 sachets of fabric softener in 4 homes. And none of these homes has a Laundromat. The fabric softener has a very soothing scent and so after soaking clothes in a bucket full of softener in water, the leftover water was used to sweep the floors of the house! Smartest thing I ever heard!
Having seen villages in 3 different zones of India – west, east and south – I am really confused about how I would describe rural India to an outsider. I’ve seen the poorest ones where I needed to advocate the benefits of using a toothbrush. And I’ve seen ones where they want me to explain the differences in the 3 different types of Kotex sanitary napkins available in the market. But this I know, there is a huge untapped market just waiting to devour all the aspirational consumer products that they are watching on the television commercials. No more low cost and rudimentary advertising for these people.
Some interesting articles from Outlook Business magazine on rural consumerism and how microfinance is helping: