Indian Motorcycles Grow Wings

Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is based in New Delhi. His novel "Arzee the Dwarf" is published by New York Review Books. Follow him on Twitter at @Hashestweets.
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A little more than two decades after it began to open its economy in 1991, India still counts as an emerging market. There's still plenty of room for growth in product categories from alcohol to mobile phones, as a consumer revolution takes hold among a middle class that is expanding rapidly.

Take two-wheelers, for instance. Data from the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers show that sales of two-wheelers in India rose an astonishing 85 percent between 2007-2008 and 2011-2012, to 13.4 million units a year.

The two-wheeler market was one of the drivers of India's consistent double-digit growth, reflecting exploding demand for fuel-efficient transport in rural areas -- where public transport is often poor or nonexistent -- and from specific segments of the urban population such as students, office workers and working women. (Much of the advertising for scooters is directed at the last category, such as a commercial featuring the Bollywood film-star Priyanka Chopra with the tagline, "Why should boys have all the fun?")

The market for two-wheelers in India, though, may have peaked earlier than most others. Demand rose just 2.9 percent in the last financial year, even though a host of multinational companies, including the Japanese brands Honda, Suzuki and Yamaha, have recently entered the Indian market to compete with the big domestic brands owned by the market leaders, Hero MotoCorp Ltd. and Bajaj Auto Ltd. (as well as other significant players such as TVS Motors and Mahindra Two Wheelers) .

The phase of exceptionally high growth is probably over, with the two-wheeler market having come close to its maximum penetration level in a slowing economy. But that might not be not such a bad thing. After surviving years of ferocious competition domestically, and swiftly leading an undeveloped market into a state of maturity, Indian two-wheeler manufacturers have begun to take a more global view. As demand at home cools, the Splendors, Boxers, Passions and Scootys are increasingly turning up on other continents.

The next phase of expansion for Indian two-wheeler companies will probably be built on exports to other emerging markets in Asia, Africa and Latin America. This week, in the business newspaper Mint, Shally Seth Mohile took stock of these trends in a report titled "Two-wheeler firms eye Africa, Latin America":

Indian two-wheeler makers, finding the going tough in a domestic market that is close to saturation point, are breaking new ground in markets such as Africa and Latin America. Rising labour costs in China, which is the biggest exporter of two-wheelers to these markets, are helping the Indian cause. ...

In India, an economic downturn, high borrowing costs and increasing fuel prices have slowed sales growth. Combined two-wheeler sales in India remained flat at 57,51,267 units in the five months from April to August, compared with 57,10,176 units in the same period a year ago, according to the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers, or SIAM. After expanding at a brisk pace for several years, sales rose by a mere 3% in fiscal 2013.

The story of Hero MotoCorp might be seen as a sign of the increased willingness of the Indian automobile industry to think globally, a stark contrast to the protectionism habitually sought by Indian industry in the decades after independence.

In December 2010, the company pulled the plug on Hero Honda, its 26-year-old joint venture with Honda Motor Co., buying out the Japanese auto giant in India, a transaction valued at close to $2 billion. Part of its reason for doing so was that it was limited by the terms of the joint venture to exporting two-wheelers only to those markets where Honda wasn't already present.

Three years later, Hero remains the leading player in India's two-wheeler market (even as its former partner, Honda, has set up its own operations in India and risen quickly to beat out Bajaj Auto for second position). But it has a lot of catching up to do overseas.

In the years that Hero Honda had remained restricted to South Asia, Bajaj had made significant progress in reaching out to emerging markets elsewhere. It is now the market leader in Nigeria, has a significant presence in many markets in Latin America, and exports make up almost 35 percent of its revenue from motorcycle sales (it also makes three-wheelers). Eventually, the company expects sales from exports to surpass domestic revenue.

Earlier this year, Hero announced ambitious plans to expand the company's presence to more than 50 countries by the end of the decade and keep pace around the world with Bajaj. The company, which currently exports about 200,000 two-wheelers annually (Bajaj, by comparison, sells more than 1 million) said that it would soon be selling two-wheelers in Kenya, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Ecuador and Peru, and that it planned to set up a manufacturing unit in Colombia. In a 2011 profile of the company's chief executive officer, Pawan Munjal, Samar Srivastava wrote of the company's plans to make up for lost time in the global market:

Tapping into Africa, Latin America and South East Asia, the three markets the company plans to get into, will be a tough challenge. First off, the company has decided that it will not play the price game there, which would bring it in direct competition with Chinese brands. So it is more likely that it will end up competing with homegrown Bajaj and erstwhile partner Honda in these markets. The belief inside Hero is that if Bajaj can export a million motorcycles, then there is no reason why they cannot, in time, notch up similar numbers.

Mahindra Two Wheelers announced last month that it was going to make three models available in Latin America with the aim of doubling exports to 20 percent of overall sales. Cumulatively, these developments signal a global ambition on the part of one of the few manufacturing sectors in India that can hope to hold its own against Chinese goods.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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