How a group of young Australians are embarking on a social enterprise to bring light to millions of urban slum dwellers in India.
It was a few years ago that Alexie Sellers saw Bangalore’s (now Bengaluru) sprawling city slums, where houses are held together by bamboo frames and blue tarpaulin sheets. As she entered a home to meet 26-year old Lakshmi and her four children who moved from the village to eke out a living in the city, she realised the literal darkness of their lives as the sun began to set. The house had no electricity. Lakshmi’s desperation for light was buying the kerosene to light up her tent house and spending all her earnings on it. While the fumes of the kerosene would damage their health, there were other consequences of living in darkness. Like Lakshmi, 400 million people in India today have no access to electricity.
This introduction was Sellers pitch at an event for garnering funds for her social enterprise Pollinate Energy. Founded by bright team of young Australian professionals, the company seeks to improve the lives of India’s poor by giving them clean energy products. In the process it is also harnessing entrepreneurial skills among the locals by empowering them to be a ‘positive force for change in India’s urban poor communities’.
How the team got together to work on a company that focusses only on India was through their own research and network that showed the country had one of the world’s biggest populations living in energy poverty. Working on her Master’s research project in Bangalore, co-founder Katerina Kimmorley’s thesis involved investigating the value of distributing renewable energy solutions to urban slums in the city. She was joined in by Monique Alfris armed with a decade’s worth of experience in environmental sustainability and Jamie Chivers, an experienced renewable energy professional, who has worked across the development cycle of renewable energy assets. A business model was set up and Sellers and Emma Colenbrander, an International Studies and Law graduate, stepped in to propel the trio’s business further. The group found a synergy and realised this is where their heart lay.
“It was small in the beginning. We had seen only one community in the north of Bangalore. As we got people in the ground to explore, we were blown away by how many communities there were across the city. We never expected that there could be 500 communities in the city that we could service,” says Sellers, an engineer who previously volunteered for Engineers without Borders and had a short stint as nuclear mechanical engineer at Australia’s only nuclear facility in Sydney.
How Pollinate Energy works in India is by setting up a distribution network for its products which include solar lights, cook stoves etc. “We don’t manufacture products. What we specialise is in finding communities that need help, communities that no one else is serving,” says Sellers.
The company’s expertise is finding communities, building relationships, training and managing the entrepreneurs so they are continually there to provide the service for that community. “We do a lot of trials and testing for products which we source from many different suppliers and take them to the community,” says Sellers adding, “In the beginning we had five different solar lights but eventually nailed it down to the Green Light Planet because of its size, price, affordability, quality and our customers really liked it.”
The communities that Pollinate Energy taps into are city slum dwellers with no fixed address. These people live in tents on the side of the road and are not recognised as a permanent group of people who need support ‘because they look very transient’. Once these groups are identified, the company builds relationships with them.
To build the relationship, the company recruits entrepreneurs who are called Pollinators. They may or may not come from the slum community but they get trained with their own micro business, are given a network of slums for service, a bag pack full of solar lights, and a smart phone with an app. Pollinators go out and meet the community members, get their details and start to sell the products on payment plans.
The products are sold on day one after receiving 20 per cent of the payment. At the end of the instalments, the pollinator will hand over the warranty card “which is like the Holy Grail to the customer”, says Sellers. Trust is built. The customer knows that if the product fails they have someone to call over the next two years as it is a really big investment for them.
While the solar lights remain its key product, there are other products that Pollinate Energy is introducing. “The solar home system is a bigger panel that you can plug in other electronic devices. Many of the families who have light have saved a lot of money are looking for more energy in the home. That’s the next product up for them,” says Sellers.
Next in the line are solar power fans, electronic tablets, ceramic water filters and fuel efficient cook stoves.
“If you look at a family in a slum, the amount of money they pay on kerosene compared to their weekly income is 5 to 10 times more than what we will pay for energy, and compared to what we are earning. It’s really out of proportion and they shouldn’t have to pay that much for energy access. So having the ability to buy these cheaper products that are much longer lasting and sustainable is really critical for them,” says Sellers.
To date, the company has sold 11,500 solar lights, 100 cooks stoves and tablets in Bangalore. A fully functioning city is selling 600 solar lights a month. “Looking at our data it is good to have 15 entrepreneurs seeling 40 units a month. But they need to be physically out there in the community to sell these units. If people look at the way we are doing business it is not commercially viable but that is why no one else is doing it.
“The cost of a solar panel is Rs 2,500 (about 50 AUD). They will last at least five years and once they pay off they save 100 dollars a year. A lot of them earn much more once they have light, the kids can study, women can sew, and they can use it in the shops too. Once someone buys the light, they want to buy it for their families in the villages and word of mouth spreads.” By working in the slums, Pollinate Energy has found the gateway to the villages, which is unique and is leveraging that a bit more.
How Pollinate Energy has been able to do it at scale is because they tapped into a clientele long neglected by all. It took a big risk in loaning to them but that has paid off. Though most of these urban slum dwellers who work as manual labourers are seen as transient, on the contrary they are people who have an income and have been living in the same address for decades, affirms Sellers. “Even though we are selling on payment plans, our customers are paying back and there is a default rate of only 1 to 2 per cent at the moment. The default rates are much lower than you would see in a bank here in Australia. Actually they are very reliable customers. It’s exactly the same story as rural micro finance where everyone thought they won’t be able to pay. Actually, they are much more financially proud than we are. We have proven finally that they are our customers, which is great.”
At the moment, it is tight margin in terms of the revenues, says Sellers. And the more communities they reach, the better it would be for the company. “We recover the cost of the product and are able to pay the pollinator and part of the city costs. But a city will be financially self-sustaining once we have a network of 15 entrepreneurs who are performing well and hitting the sales target. Obviously if they exceed that then we start to generate profit in the city which helps us continue to grow and run our headquarters.”
Right now the three cities the company operates in – Bangalore, Kolkata and Hyderabad – all have 8-9 entrepreneurs. “We had a few months in Bangalore where they profited pretty significantly. Now we are looking at how we can better our recruitment pipeline for entrepreneurs so that we are backed up in those cases where people leave and go on to different jobs. That way we have other pollinators who can step in and start to sell so that we don’t have that drop off of sales each time someone leaves. That is our next challenge I guess, they will hit the self-sustaining point then they drop again. Trying to keep that up is a challenge.”
One of company’s key programs is also running the Pollinate Energy Fellowship which brings together young people from all backgrounds who have a passion for improving lives through social business models and environmentally sustainable solutions. A Pollinate Energy fellow spends 3-4 weeks with the ground office and learning the ropes of the business. There is a $2,500 fundraising requirement for the fellowship which will cover the costs of staying with and helps the company overcome some business challenges.
From an organic start to a three-city expansion in just a few years, Pollinate Energy has made a quick leap. The credit goes to a committed team who jumped on board full time putting in their sweat and tears. In 2013, the company bagged the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) award for its contribution in promoting sustainable development.
Sellers, who is packing her bags to move to India indefinitely to grow the business further, is excited. The company is on an expansion mode and looking at urban slums in other cities such as Mumbai and Delhi. “It’s going to be challenging but I really want to get hands on in the business there. After three years here as a solitary outpost raising money and profile of the company, it will be exciting to be part of the business,” she smiles, adding, “My role will be largely understanding how we can scale more effectively and rolling out plans on which city to go. Next year we are looking at 2-4 cities, that’s a lot. We did two cities this year… that’s doable. “
Clearly, Pollinate Energy has had a jump start on which they can propel themselves to push forward. “A big part of why we are there is also to advocate that urban slum dwellers in India deserve to have the same access to products and services that anyone does,” says Sellers. This is a company that is driven by the desire to make a change.
(You can help light up a life this Christmas.
Please send your gift of $25, $50, $100 or another amount via https://pollinateenergy.org/donate-now or send your donation to Pollinate Energy at
PO Box 1032, North Fitzroy, VIC, 3068)
By Indira Laisram