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Can Uber win in India after China loss

Indian taxi drivers rest in their taxis at the main railway station in New Delhi on July 26, 2016.
Prakash Singh | AFP | Getty Images
Indian taxi drivers rest in their taxis at the main railway station in New Delhi on July 26, 2016.

After selling out to bitter rival Didi Chuxing in China, Uber now faces a tough fight in India. And analysts tell CNBC that the San Francisco headquartered firm - which revolutionized public transportation since it was founded by Travis Kalanick in 2009 - has to win this time around.

"After losing China, Uber can't lose another market to a local player," Jaspal Singh partner at urban transportation consultancy Valoriser said.

"Uber will be desperate after the China sale. Globally they are losing big… [but in India] the opportunity is immense for Uber to expand," Neil Shah, director at Counterpoint Technology Market Research, said.

A Godzilla market

The stakes are high. The taxi market in India stands at around $13 billion and is expected to expand to $36 billion by 2020. And the Uber kind of app-based cab hailing companies account for just 1 percent of this market, according to industry estimates.

Growth is being driven by technology innovation and smartphone penetration, say experts. The current 250 million smartphone users are expected to grow to 500 million within two years, according to Counterpoint research.

Rapid urbanization, a growing young population and limited public transportation options all add up to create a huge unmet demand. Can Uber woo this potentially lucrative market?

"India is our single largest market outside of the United States and the merger with Didi has freed up resources for additional focus [on India]," Amit Jain, president of Uber India told CNBC.

Uber has been in India for over three year and holds second spot on the organised cab hailing market share table. It had a near 13 percent market share, based on number of rides, in 2014, which has grown to over 30 percent in 2016, according to Counterpoint research.

While growth in India has been at break-neck speed for Uber, it plays second fiddle to local player Ola, which launched before Uber and leads with a near 50 percent market share.

"These [Ola and Uber] are two formidable players and they are expanding crazily," says Shah of Counterpoint.

Fierce competition

Ola has a far bigger footprint, it is available in more than 100 Indian cities compared to Uber's 29. Both are using every marketing tool - incentives and discounts- to attract drivers and customers.

While both players are trying to adapt their model to local needs Ola, say experts, is ahead in this game. It wants to fill "every space" says Singh of Valoriser. So Ola offers auto rickshaws rides, hourly rates on its taxi service plus inter-city cabs.

"As a home-grown Indian company, we understand the needs of an Indian customer much better," Pranay Jivrajka, Ola's chief operating officer told CNBC. He added that "Over the next five years, Ola seeks to penetrate into the remotest corners of the country."

Ola, one of the most celebrated start-up stories in India can afford this cracking expansion because it is flush with funds, including $1.2 billion from investors over the past four years, according to tracking agency Venture Intelligence. But the big spending Ola may have to pull the reins, say experts if further funding slows down.

Venture capitalists funding to Indian start-ups is down about 30 percent so far this year compared to last year, according to industry estimates. Total funding, for example, in the taxi booking space till mid-November 2016 was just $1 million, compared to over $1 billion in 2015, according to Venture Intelligence.

"Start-ups in India are spending big to acquire customers. There are no profits to show, only big losses. Ola's scale is bigger, chances of making money are less," said Shah.

Will slow and steady work?

This mad rush to clear the post way before its next rival, may drive Ola into trouble, say experts, Uber on the other hand is being a little more cautious in its quest to conquer the Indian market.

A sexual assault by an Uber driver in December 2014, was a big blow to its operations in India. But Uber having faced lot of trouble in various markets, is looking to consolidate and focus on the quality of its drivers in India while adapting its model to local needs, industry watchers told CNBC.

Specific innovations for the Indian consumer include cash as a payment option and 'Dial an Uber', which doesn't require you to have an app to order a taxi. Instead of spreading themselves thin, Uber is looking to establish leadership positions in a few cities, say market analysts.

One of the biggest challenges for Uber in India is that it "needs to localize as its China experience has shown but without diluting its global brand," says Singh.

Besides intense competition the regulatory environment also poses challenges. Every Indian state is allowed to frame rules for the transport sector so there isn't a level playing field across the country. Plus the use of private cars as taxis is not allowed and surge pricing has been banned in some cities hitting at the core of the Uber model.

All this makes for an uncertain future, but industry watchers are hopeful that given the popularity and disruptive growth of the taxi aggregators a new policy framework would come out soon and will be market friendly.

"Everybody at the moment is new to this game," says Singh of Valoriser.

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