Although making hardware in India remains an uphill battle in some ways, the cellphone boom has actually helped on this front by creating a demand for accessories that is being met by homegrown brands. Search for something like a smartphone charger on Amazon or Flipkart and you'll find dozens of options from brands you're probably not even familiar with, which have built up a big business. Gadgets 360 caught up with Viswanadh Kandula, the co-founder of one such brand - Mivi - a Hyderabad based company that designs accessories such as chargers and earphones.
Before launching the brand, Kandula and his business partner Midhula Devabhaktuni were both working in the US. Devabhaktuni was working as a software engineer, while Kandula was an electronics exporter in Florida, shipping laptops to India for e-commerce companies. It was this experience, he tells Gadgets 360, which made him recognise that there was a gap in the Indian market, between the low-cost and low-quality products that were widely available, and the American products that were sold in India at significantly higher prices than in the US.
"Look Belkin makes great products, it's really great quality," says Kandula. "The problem is that it's two to three times more expensive when you're buying it in India. So we wanted to address this gap, and provide quality products but at a more affordable price. Our products are still a little more expensive, but they're all properly certified, and they're not as expensive as the American products."
"Our chargers are MFI certified, our earphones use Qualcomm's ICs, and support Qualcomm's quick charge," he adds. "The consumers aren't always knowledgable about these things, they may not know what Qualcomm is, but if they see 'certified' in Qualcomm certified, that is also a good thing. And now online the platforms are also checking up on the listings more, so you can't just claim you're certified, without actually having the certification done."
Work on began with research and development in 2015, and Mivi started selling its mobile phone chargers and charging cables in 2016. Since then, it's grown to add multiple Bluetooth earphones to the mix as well, including launching a new product called the Mivi Conquer Bluetooth just this week. "We're seeing 30 to 35 percent returning customers, and the cables and chargers, and Bluetooth are both doing really good, the customers trust us," says Kandula.
Designed in India - made in China
From the start, design has been done in-house in Hyderabad, with an eye to the Indian market, he adds. "When you buy a charger from a third party online, most of the time, you'll see that it doesn't actually fit very well in the Indian socket," he says. "That's because most of these are actually ones with European plugs. The thing is that the India market wasn't that big earlier, and so what people would do is buy European chargers from China, white label them, and sell those."
European sockets use a two-pin setup that's a close match to the bottom two pins in an Indian plug-point. Because of this, you can generally use Indian plugs in European sockets, and vice versa. However, as Kandula points out, the fit isn't perfect. "You're buying the chargers, and it's a loose fit on the wall socket," he says. "So we tested a lot of different Indian sockets, to make sure that the plug would fit perfectly. Now, the market has grown and you'll get others who are also fitting properly, but that wasn't the case in 2015."
Similarly, the company worked on the design of charging cables, working on a stretch release cable that prevents fraying near the connectors - a common problem especially if you're used to Apple cables.
"We iterated the design four times in one year, and now we have one we think is perfect," Kandula says, adding, "this is all developed in Hyderabad, and we have applied for a patent on the design."
Although the design work is happening inside the country, manufacturing still takes place in China - in a facility used by OnePlus and Apple, he tells us. However, Kandula says that Mivi's goal - as it expands into more categories, including speakers - is to try and bring the manufacturing to India as well. "We are building our manufacturing facility in Hyderabad, and will start with chargers and develop the team from there, start producing Bluetooth earphones and speakers in India," he says.
Manufacturing still remains tricky
To successfully compete with Chinese products in terms of price, manufacturing in-house is needed. However, the facilities to make that happen aren't available. It's less challenging however, for a company like Mivi, which is trying to make fairly simple products, Kandula points out.
"Manufacturing infrastructure is still very limited," he tells us. "When you're looking at the mobile category, where there are so many brands now, the challenge is that there is a new IC every year, RAM is changed, new components are needed for every product."
On the other hand, a product like a charger is less complicated, and has a longer life-cycle. "For a charger or an earphone, the cycle is three to four years for a new version, the IC is the same every year," he says. "So you can build this up in India. The only problem we faced in setting up manufacturing is there is a lack of skill. People with experience are missing. So what we're going to be doing is hiring at least 200 technicians, and around 10-15 engineers. We want to bring in some good mid-level people with hands on experience from China who can help train the technicians."