Last summer, Google introduced its developmental drone delivery system, “Project Wing,” with a video showing a dog food air drop to a farmer in the Australian outback. This was at the height of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and just a few weeks after deadly mudslides in Afghanistan and India, and a severe earthquake in Ludian, China. Instead of highlighting the disaster relief potential for drone delivery, or demonstrating that drones have uses beyond spying and launching missiles, Google’s marketing department promised help for rural dog owners hoping to avoid a long drive into town. And this spectacular marketing miss has since been repeated by other leading tech innovators. The slick videos, launch parties, and press releases for Tesla’s home battery, Apple’s HealthKit, and Microsoft’s HoloLens all suggest there is no world beyond North American and Europe.
These innovations would be a slight convenience or a cool new gadget for developed-country users, but a valuable necessity in developing countries, where systems of house numbering, street naming, postal delivery, grid power, data collection, job training, and healthcare are all lacking. Few will blame tech giants for focusing mainly on lucrative consumer, gaming, and medical markets in developed countries; that’s where their marketing and distribution channels exist. And of course there are considerable challenges to launching and scaling in developing countries. But the principle of user-centered design begins with the idea that users really need what you’re building. Do doctors in a remote relief center in Nepal need antibiotics delivered by drone? Yes, they do – much more than an Aussie farmer needs a bag of kibble. They also need to report and track cholera outbreaks. And they might also have to walk a scared, inexperienced health worker in another town through an amputation – both wearing a HoloLens connected to a Tesla Powerwall.
The use cases for these innovations in emerging markets are plentiful, and the utility is far more convincing than it is in most mature-market contexts. Tech innovators would certainly claim that developing-country consumers are free to buy and use their new products and services, but they are being priced too high for most people, and there has been no appreciable effort to market or distribute them in developing countries. (Elon Musk claims the Powerwall would be great for “people in remote parts of the world,” but China is the only developing country for which Tesla’s website has been adapted.) Tech companies that ignore emerging markets are leaving the doors of opportunity open to low-cost imitators and counterfeiters. Instead, they should be developing tailored, affordable versions of these solutions for specific geographies and use cases. They could also pair these new products (through partnership or acquisition) with enabling innovations in payment and delivery so they can market, sell, and distribute them anywhere in the world. Apple will make a quarter of their income – more than $60 billion – in China this year, up from less than $1 billion in 2009. Are tech companies doing what it takes to realize this kind of growth in emerging markets when today’s innovations are as common as a second-hand iPhone?