It's a muggy Monday morning in Mumbai, and Satyen Kothari, the co-founder and managing director of online payments company Citrus Pay, has just finished a conference call. His office is spare—just a stool, a chaise longue, and a desk made of industrial steel and a slab of reclaimed wood. All the walls are windows—some look outside onto leaning palms and apartment blocks, the rest overlook employees at work inside, and have diagrams sketched on them with magic marker. "I've achieved zero inbox," he says, in the cryptic parlance of Silicon Valley, where the 42-year-old engineer worked for more than a decade.
Yet Kothari returned to India to co-found Citrus Pay in 2011 for a very good reason: Almost all of the excitement and innovation in technology today seems to be in emerging markets. Asia and Africa will soon host the majority of the world's middle class, and Apple, Microsoft and other global tech giants are racing to hoover up that disposable income. But they are running into strong competition from nimble new local rivals. The homegrown startups often have a far better sense of local needs and trends, and are more adept at spotting and hiring talent. "It's going to be a tidal wave. This wave will be unstoppable," says Kothari.
Citrus Pay is already providing online payment systems for many of India's best-known companies. Its roster includes: IndiGo, the budget airline that has soared during India's Ryanair-type transformation; Bharti Airtel, the country's largest cellphone provider; and Meru, India's biggest taxi company. Kothari's firm now has more than 17 million users and employs 250 people.
Some of Citrus Pay's cleverest smartphone apps are aimed at wealthy young Indians who still have to contend with traditional challenges and anxieties. One app will automatically pay the salaries of domestic helpers. Another will send micro-loans to rural villagers selected by local NGOs. Would a Western company have been sufficiently in touch with Indian society to address the below-the-surface frustrations of paying live-in servants, or the shame many young professionals feel about grinding rural poverty? Not likely.
Over the past five years, I've written about tech and telecom in the West, and I've reported from emerging markets in Africa and Asia. I've often struggled to stay awake as Western executives talked about "penetrating the enterprise" and their "solutions" for mundane problems. I've been far more intrigued by the all-out race in emerging markets. The bets there almost always seem to be bolder and riskier—plus the weather is better.
Just look at Canada's largest technology and telecom companies: It's a veritable snooze-fest. Some are reviled for high bills and poor service—hello, Rogers. The failures and layoffs at BlackBerry are just depressing. Open Text succeeds by doggedly milking corporate customers with useful but eye-wateringly boring back-end software. Vancouver's tech sector, meanwhile, is now essentially a scenic branch office for Japanese gaming companies and American giants like Microsoft. Hootsuite has created excitement, but it, too, is a supporting player—it makes a dashboard for businesses to organize their offerings on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other U.S.-built social media platforms.
Silicon Valley is still the epicentre of tech, but it is greying at the temples. Apple, for all its innovation under Steve Jobs, is now churning out iPhones with bigger screens—exactly what the company was accusing Samsung of doing for years in patent lawsuits.
You have to go to emerging markets to find bold new technology that still changes societies. The providers include Western giants as well as local firms. There's the M-Pesa mobile payments and micro-finance service launched by Britain's Vodafone and wireless providers in Kenya in 2007, which later expanded to other African countries, India, Afghanistan and Eastern Europe. There's also WhatsApp's appeal across the developing world. No wonder CEO Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook (which bought WhatsApp last year) keeps popping up in Indonesia and India as he tries to keep his growth story going.
Western investors are following, too. Citrus Pay received $2 million (all currency in U.S. dollars) in venture capital from Silicon Valley investment bank Sequoia Capital in 2012. I remember my visit to the bustling Co-Creation Hub (CcHub) in Lagos in 2012. Tech entrepreneurs were marking up whiteboards and writing software that actually grappled with Nigeria's problems, like creating an app that enabled Twitter messages to travel over congested wireless networks (saving messages to send later, rather than having them cancelled). The CcHub has received funding from Google, Nokia, Samsung, Microsoft and Oracle, and from emerging-market veterans like South African telecom MTN and Chinese mobile phone maker Tecno.
The upstarts are also forcing global giants like Uber to up their game. In India, Uber is reportedly spending $1 billion to fight off local ride-sharing rivals such as Ola. It is valued at about $2.5 billion, and has received funding from revered Indian billionaire Ratan Tata.
For Western investors who don't mind risk, the opportunities are still enticing. Late last year, Sir Terence Mathews, the Welsh-Canadian tech billionaire, told me that Indonesia now is like China in the 1980s: on the cusp of enormous growth. After doing business in Asia for more than 30 years, he opened an office in Jakarta for his Wesley Clover investment firm. Who did he hire to head it? Veteran Indonesian hand Andy Cobham, the former country head for BlackBerry. Indonesia was one of BlackBerry's hottest markets, but it bungled its lead, and fell behind local upstarts Evercoss, Smartfren and Advan. Cobham—and Indonesia—moved on. Things move fast in places like this.