Much attention in the development field has been paid to efforts of rural electrification, seen as a way of empowering marginalized communities and giving them an opportunity for improved productivity, education, and health. While the rural electrification effort is no doubt an important movement in development work, the attention it commands can cause the issue of urban electrification to be overlooked. In cities across the country, millions of Indians live in urban slums without a stable source of electricity. A new focus among social enterprises has developed around this sometimes overlooked margin. Pollinate Energy is one organization working to address this issue.
Pollinate Energy, a Bangalore-based not-for-profit, produces and sells low-cost solar lighting solutions to members of slum communities throughout Bangalore. Their distribution model relies on converting local community members into micro-entrepreneurs, or what the organization calls “pollinators.” These pollinators purchase lighting systems from Pollinate, and then sell them to families within their communities. The innovative distribution model promotes impact on two levels, on one hand introducing communities to safe, renewable energy alternatives to the expensive and dangerous kerosene lamps that many of them depend on, and, on the other hand, giving select community members the opportunity to earn extra income through the Pollinate system of micro-entrepreneurship.
We had a chance to connect with Monique Alfris, Co-Founder of Pollinate Energy, to learn more about the work they are currently doing and the future of the organization. Edited excerpts:
SocialStory: On your path to eradicate energy poverty, how many clean energy tech solutions have you provided? What is the market and need for these solutions in India?
Monique Alfris: In just a few short months of operations we have provided over 300 solar lighting systems to families living in energy poverty, some with mobile phone charging capabilities. These systems have impacted over 1500 individuals.
According to the IEA, there were 293 million people living without access to electricity in India, making the market for clean tech substantial. Clean tech solutions would provide these people with essential services – including light to study, cook and socialise.
At present Pollinate Energy’s focus is on the urban poor in Bangalore. The people we work with live in temporary tent communities and typically work on construction sites around the city. A report compiled in 2010 estimated that there were 20,000 of these people living in Bangalore – our own market research has found around 17,000 of these individuals living in a 10km by 10km quadrant in the north alone.
SS: Tell us more about your process to get people to change their behaviour and use your clean energy tech products?
MA: Through our network of micro-distributors, or “Pollinators” as we call them, we go directly into the communities to teach the people about our products. After explaining the system, we provide each community with one demo light for one week so that they can see how the light works. This time also allows the community to make sure the light will meet their needs.
After the customer purchases the light and we install it, we provide training in the local language (of which we deal with 4, just in Bangalore!). This helps them to better understand the system and therefore us it.
As we typically allow our clients to pay back over 5 weeks, we also make sure that the systems are being used correctly when we go to collect repayments. We also periodically check in with existing customers as we go to sell new products in each community – there are an average of 30 – 40 families in the communities that we work.
Having said all that we are a new organisation and keen to see how the products are being used by our communities in 1, 3 and 5 years time. We are currently supporting research into how our existing clients are actually using their light, and whether it is able to complete eliminate kerosene use.
SS: Can you give us a specific example of how your solutions have impacted the lives of your users?
MA: Parambi was an early adopter of our technology. She was the first in her community to take a solar lighting kit from us for a week as a demo. Parambi told us that she uses the solar light to do tailoring work in the evenings. “I do domestic housework in the daytime so I previously wasn’t able to work at night,” she told us. Her children also use the light to study. Previously they would get home from class at around 6 or 7pm and would not be able to do any further work. The kerosene lamp they were using just wasn’t bright enough. Now her kids are able to use the light to do a few extra hours work, or instead use the hours to play safely without danger of knocking over the naked flame and being burnt.
SS: Why did you choose to build a not for profit social business as opposed to a for profit social enterprise?
MA: We plan to reinvest any profits we make into research and expansion into new areas – we believe this is the best way to reach India’s urban poor the fastest!
SS: You are about to launch a crowd funding campaign, what are you going to use the funds for? How much are you trying to raise?
MA: Yes, on April 2nd we [launched] a crowd funding campaign on a new Australia crowdfunding site – ChipIn. We are going to use the funds to incubate 5 new micro solar businesses to sell solar lighting kits to temporary tent communities in new regions of Bangalore.
The funds will go towards their intensive one-on-one month long training program, funds to survey their designated region for communities, their initial round of stock and their marketing kit.
We aim to raise around Rs 580,000 over the course of the 6 week campaign.
SS: What is the future for Pollinate Energy?
MA: Our vision is that by 2017, we seek to provide a range of clean energy products that respond to consumer needs, and to operate across five states in Southern India.
A lofty one, but one we hope to achieve!