Pollinate Energy: Moving from energy poverty into the light

A Bangalore businessman ran his business from a small shop in the slums. His kerosene-lit shop couldn’t open past sunset, and business was looking bad until he was able to buy one of Pollinate Energy’s lamps. His new solar-lit shop increased trade, and he doubled his income instantly. Four months later, his family moved out of the slum and into an apartment. He’s just one of the many individuals whose lives have been lit by this sustainable business model.

Pollinate Energy brings sustainable light and energy sources to marginalised communities on the outskirts of Indian cities. The scheme addresses issues of people living in energy poverty by providing low-cost solar lamps as part of a micro-finance plan. To date, the scheme has provided nearly 9,000 solar lamp systems in 886 Indian communities, and has impacted 41,229 people.

National Manager Australia Alexie Seller notes that the need and interest for the lamps is there, without the distribution model. “These products are already out there, but no-one is really there giving people the means or ability to purchase them.” Their local distributors (called Pollinators) manage their own small business across a network of slum communities in Bangalore, Hyderabad and Kolkata, to elicit the need from customers before they engage them in the plan.

“We’ve found that about 25 per cent of the Indian population is living on the fringes of Indian cities in shanty town developments with no access to electricity. They’re seen as illegitimates; they don’t own the land they live on and they can’t access government support or finance.”

Alexie notes that while these people do have small amounts of money for basic needs like kerosene and food, they still have no effective way of saving. Through providing small loans Pollinate Energy is able to take the risk for a short time while they pay it back, after which they can save about $100 a year.

“It complicates the business model because we have to have Pollinators going up there every week, but it also means that they build much stronger relationships in the community because they are present all the time, and that helps them get further sales across as well.” The scheme has also saved people in these communities 34.6 million rupees on the cost of 671,667 tins of kerosene. Pollinate Energy sees these savings as a vital step towards financial empowerment.

“We hope that by doing this, other organisations like banks and MFIs (Microfinance Institutions) will start to see people in these communities as viable customers.”

Pollinate Energy has been careful to ensure a replicable and scalable model from the start. Their aim is to translate the program to other cities around India – ultimately to distribute solar lighting to 50 Indian cities by 2020. And it’s well on track. “Over this year and the next we plan to expand into at least five Indian cities. If we’re operating at this capacity, we break even in our business,” says Alexie.

After only 2.5 years in business, Pollinate Energy recently expanded to Kolkata, and its early stage customers are now climbing up the energy ladder. They have been able to buy larger home energy systems with more light and a fan, as well as other device chargers.

Pollinate Energy has also found that the impact of a solar light has impacted upon each community in a wealth of unexpected ways.

“Most people bought the light because they knew they would save money. But once they bought it they found the number one benefit is the quality of time that they have in the evening to spend time with their families. Normally they would come home and the kids couldn’t play outside because it’s not safe on a dark street. Now there are lights in the houses and you can see people congregate around the houses that have lights on. It’s wonderful to see.”

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