Unilever and Facebook target 'upliftment' of internet-starved rural Indians. Yeah, right!

Hindustan Levers and Internet.org, a Facebook-led alliance, want to uplift India's rural unconnected by wiring them. And there I was, thinking that they only wanted to flog soap and messaging apps to them.

An unusual alliance was forged yesterday to apparently help millions of rural Indians access the internet in what is still a hugely underpenetrated country. India's largest consumer packaged goods company Hindustan Unilever, a subsidiary of Anglo-Dutch major Unilever, and Internet.org, a consortium led by Facebook, announced a partnership to boost the number of people accessing the internet in India to above the existing abysmally low 13 percent low watermark.

It is not clear exactly what this entails, but the venture talked about evaluating infrastructure costs, as well as "educational and cultural factors that also limit internet use". Here are quotes offered by two executives of the two companies, which are vague at best:

"Through our long history of serving the Indian market, we bring an in-depth understanding of rural Indian communities. We hope, together with Internet.org, we can use this know-how to understand better how a vital modern resource (internet) can benefit many more millions," Keith Weed, chief marketing and communication officer, Unilever, said in a statement on Monday.

"In partnership with Unilever, we hope to break down the barriers to access and, in turn, provide millions of people with the information that can help them, and their communities, thrive," said Chris Weasler, director of global connectivity, Facebook.

Levers, after all, made a lot of money by successfully opening up rural India to its products through dogged distribution efforts and innovative marketing, such as the Rs 1 Shampoo Sachet.

Facebook, which recently acquired messaging app WhatsApp, probably also stumbled upon its own epiphany. A Citigroup Research team's foray into rural Uttar Pradesh (the largest state in India, with over 200 million people) offered a brief but eye-opening account of how the hinterland is communicating:

"The pervasive presence (adoption, usage, and familiarity) of WhatsApp — the (free) messaging service — was the highlight of our UP drive. This phenomenon, cutting across socio-economic and age strata, reflected awareness/accessibility/affordability of smartphones, and people's knowledge of/comfort with data plans."

Somehow, I don't think rural upliftment is only what both these companies are after.

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