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Social enterprise Pollinate Energy has provided 20,000 urban poor families with affordable, green energy

Vallabh Rao
31st Jan 2018
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Based in India and Australia, Pollinate Energy sells affordable products to India’s urban poor communities, who traditionally have a difficult time getting loans.

In 2012, six young Australians — Jamie Chivers, Monique Alfris, Ben Merven, Katerina Kimmorley, Emma Colenbrander, and Alexie Seller — came together to see if they could find a way for children living in a slum in North Bengaluru, to have light to study.

Initially, the co-founders worked with another Australian social business, 40K Home — an enterprise focussed on providing education to a small migrant community living on the outskirts of Bengaluru. The co-founders focussed their efforts on finding a business model for three slums, but quickly realised there were hundreds of other slum communities that needed their help.

After speaking to suppliers and micro-finance organisations, they realised that no one was willing to provide a solution for these families – they were seen as too poor, and too risky. So, the co-founders decided to start Pollinate Energy and moved to India to set up operations. The co-founders started with a pilot of 100 solar lights, and once they reached that milestone, they knew they had something that worked. 

What began as a trial of solar lights in a northern Bengaluru makeshift community, replacing dangerous, unhealthy and costly kerosene, and became an immediate success. Today, Pollinate Energy is a thriving social business, with the purpose of improving the health, safety, quality of life and cost of living of the urban poor in India through the sale of life-changing products. The also brings about wins for the wider community and the environment. 

Alexie, Co-founder and CEO of Pollinate Energy, shares,

“It's been a massive learning curve. At the beginning, all co-founders were incredibly good at learning new skills, diving in the deep end, and just doing what needed to be done. However, we found ourselves at a point of transition where we needed more experienced people to lift the company to the next level. We are proud to have seen both our Indian and Australian teams expand!” 

Currently, Pollinate Energy offers a range of products, including large solar home systems, water filters, solar fans, clean cookstoves, mobile phones and mosquito nets. In order to continue making the products accessible to families at the “bottom of the pyramid,” they have introduced new pay-as-you-go (PAYG) solar technology, which acts like a prepaid SIM card.

So far, Pollinate Energy has provided 27,298 products to over 20,000 families, impacting the lives of more than 123,602 people living in slums. Pollinate Energy now operates across five Indian cities — Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Lucknow, and Kanpur. It operates as not-for-profit in Australia, and operates as a social enterprise (registered as an LLP) in India. The products are manufactured by the B-Corp certified organisation Greenlight Planet, which owns manufacturing facilities in China, and some lights are assembled in East Africa and India. Pollinate Energy’s flagship product, SunKing Pro2 generally sells at Rs 3,000 paid over five to 12 weeks on a payment plan.   

Pollinators 

Pollinate Energy wants not just their products, but their business model to be sustainable too. To this effect, they have trained and supported hundreds of local men and women, whom they call ‘Pollinators’, to sell and service the products in slum communities.

This gives them new skills and allows Pollinate Energy to capture key information and data on how they are making a difference on the ground. Every Pollinator has a 'business in a bag', including a smartphone, customer data and access to the products on consignment, so that their micro-business can flourish.

Each of cities Pollinate Energy operates in has staff to support the Pollinators and help them grow. In December 2017, they have taken another big step and founded the company Pollinate Power LLP. Pollinators now have the option to be employed and take up a stable salary and benefits. If they have ambitions to continue to develop their own business, they can continue as a franchisee and Pollinate Energy will provide ongoing business development support on request.

The 2017 Christmas Campaign has allowed the establishment of the Pollinate Energy Education Fund to support Pollinators in sending their children to a high-quality school. The fund provides qualifying Pollinators with the $200 tuition they are required to pay up front, at the beginning of the school year. Over the year, Pollinators repay 75 percent of the loan in interest-free monthly installments and keep the remaining 25 percent for other school supplies. 

Impact stories 

Five years ago, Laxmi moved her family to a slum of Hyderabad to find employment. Born into poverty, Laxmi has lived a challenging life with few opportunities. She earns only Rs 200 per day as a dhobi (washerwoman). Despite her low income, Laxmi bought Pollinate Energy’s product, the Sun King Boom, by entering their five-week payment plan.

The solar-powered light includes a digital FM Radio, MP3 player and mobile phone chargers. Pollinate Energy’s light allows her to work extended hours in the evenings and consequently increase her earnings. Her grandchildren are benefiting too — instead of straining their eyes under the dim light of a kerosene lamp and breathing in toxic gases, they can safely study under the bright solar lamp. Plus, the radio provides entertainment for the entire household.

Sandeep is a Pollinator in Lucknow. As a child, Sandeep wanted to join the army — a dream fuelled by an intense desire to serve his country. However, when his elder sister passed away, his family experienced great trauma, and Sandeep gave up his dream to work and support them financially. Being a Pollinator not only guarantees him a steady income, but inspires him to persevere on a daily basis.

For the urban poor

India’s urban poor, are often overlooked by government schemes, which tend to focus on rural poor. As urbanisation and migration in India increases, urban poor continue to be vulnerable, without access to quality housing, education and infrastructure such as electricity and sanitation. Pollinate Energy with its community-driven focus and social business model, aims to impact 1 million people by 2020.

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