Jiya Kiran Valambhia’s success story as a social media influencer is a familiar one in the age of TikTok. Each day she uploads a short clip for her 300,000 followers featuring her doing dance moves such as the thumka hip shake or the dhak dhak chest thump, set to hit Bollywood songs.
Jiya, the daughter of a carpenter, earns about $500 a month by endorsing smartphone makers and online tutoring and gaming companies.
But because she lives in Jamnagar, a small town in western India, none of this happens on TikTok. The central government banned the app in 2020 as part of a broader crackdown on Chinese tech services, which it says are a threat to its sovereignty and security. So the 14-year-old Jiya uses Josh, a local app designed to mimic the TikTok experience.
The immediate trigger for the ban on Chinese tech products was clashes in June 2020 between the two countries’ military forces. With tensions high after the incident, Indian officials said they feared Chinese-made consumer internet products such as TikTok and WeChat could be used for espionage.
TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance Ltd., said at the time that it complied with all Indian laws and hadn’t shared information about Indian users with the Chinese government. But in the two years since, the government has continued to add Chinese services to a blacklist that now contains more than 200 of them.
Like many instances of technonationalism, a rising global trend, the measure has come with commercial benefits for local companies. Dozens of homegrown Indian startups building short video, gaming, messaging, and productivity apps have been booming since the ban took effect.
Short-video apps in particular have seen rocketing growth in the past two years, with Josh and rivals Roposo, Moj, and MX TakaTak amassing hundreds of millions of users and attracting billions of dollars from global backers including Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Goldman Sachs Group Inc.
Josh, which says it targets Bharat, a term denoting non-English-speaking Indians who live outside the country’s half-dozen most affluent cities, has more than 150 million monthly active users. Bangalore-based VerSe Innovation Pvt Ltd., the company that makes the app and also runs the news aggregator Dailyhunt, announced in April it had raised $805 million from investors who valued it at $5 billion.
VerSe introduced Josh, which means “sparkle” or “passion” in Hindi, just four days after the TikTok ban began, eager to capture the more than 200 million Indians using TikTok who needed an alternative. “Users were desperate for a replacement,” says Umang Bedi, VerSe’s co-founder and chief executive officer and the former head of Meta Platforms Inc.’s Indian operations.
Mr Bedi says his team contacted 200 top TikTok influencers, some of whom had millions of followers, luring them with paid contracts. “Those creators gave us legitimacy quickly,” he says.
VerSe also roped in thousands of other creators-chefs, musicians, singers, and stand-up comedians-by conducting creator workshops in small cities and distant towns such as Kota and Bharuch. More than 200,000 creators now use the platform.
US-based tech companies have also been working to win over India’s enormous population, much of which is coming online for the first time. A year after the TikTok ban, Instagram became the country’s most popular social media app. But Silicon Valley has its own conflicts with the Indian government over issues such as censorship and restriction on encryption.
VerSe also believes US tech companies are focused only on a slice of the Indian market, leaving ample space for local alternatives. “Facebook and Instagram are largely for India’s ‘sophisticated’ internet users-they don’t have enough local-language content,” says Virendra Gupta, co-founder of VerSe.
“We run Indian-language content factories. The Silicon Valley companies have missed this learning.”
Almost a billion Indians are expected to watch short-form videos over the next three years. Mr Bedi says he wants at least half of them watching on Josh.