Walking into a slum in Bangalore for the first time carrying a solar-powered light was a daunting experience for Alexie Seller. She had never been to India before, let alone such a poor community, and wasn’t sure what to expect. But she was amazed at how welcoming the people were. In a country where families are used to seeing their children die from indoor air pollution, largely caused by kerosene lamps, Seller and her environmentally-friendly light were a godsend.
In the five years since, Seller’s organisation Pollinate Energy has helped more than 100,000 people in more than 800 communities through their products, and saved 2.7 million litres of kerosene and 6.6 million kilograms of CO2 emissions. It won the United Nations Momentum for Change Award in 2013, and has expanded to service four cities.
Seller had previously taught English in the Dominican Republic, worked in orphanages in Honduras and with refugees on Christmas Island, off the coast of Western Australia. But she didn’t feel she had the appropriate skills to make an impact in those areas. The 29-year-old had studied a combined engineering and arts degree at the University of Sydney and part of a master’s degree in sustainable energy at RMIT in Melbourne.
It was while doing volunteer work with Engineers Without Borders, doing research into energy poverty in 2012, that she met co-founder Monique Alfris when she came to speak to members after conducting a successful trial in Bangalore. Seller had been researching similar models across the globe. She quit her job at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation and went to India to start the social business with them. “It was new and exciting,” she says. “I wanted to make sure what I did with my life was genuine, long-term and committed. It’s where I had a skillset, passion and motivation.”
The curse of kerosene
Around 65 million people live in urban slums in India, squatting on vacant plots of land in temporary dwellings made from tarpaulins and bamboo. They are usually near construction sites and along railway tracks around the city’s fringe. Most inhabitants come from poor rural villages to work as builders, domestic staff and ragpickers, who make a living rummaging through refuse in search of material to sell. They live on less than $2 per day and largely rely on kerosene stovetops to cook and kerosene lamps to see at night. But the light is very weak, meaning they can’t work and children are unable to study after the sun goes down.
The lamps also emit toxic fumes, including carbon monoxide, particulates, benzene and formaldehyde at levels up to 100 times higher than the recommended limits set by the World Health Organisation – the equivalent of smoking two packets of cigarettes per day.
These lead to health problems such as child pneumonia, lung cancer, respiratory infections and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It is estimated 100,000 children under five die every year from indoor air pollution in India, making it the second largest cause of death after heart disease.
“It’s a kid every five minutes,” Seller says. “It’s one of those statistics that’s a bit overwhelming and still not talked about. People think there’s a lot of electricity access in India, but electricity here is unreliable and there are large populations in the cities that can’t even access the grid connection. We have seen families living next to the Marriott Hotel and wondered: ‘How can they not have access to this service?’ When we started to dig we realised they were really excluded from all the services around them. A lot of families were right under electricity lines but couldn’t access it because of their lack of status and address.”
A life-changing solution
Pollinate Energy also trains local entrepreneurs and provides loans so they can buy stock and create their own micro-businesses. These salespeople – known as ‘pollinators’ – work out a five to 12-week payment plan, depending on the buyer’s level of income. As the most popular solar lights cost around US$50, the buyer pays US$5 to US$10 per week, but Seller says most had previously been paying US$2 or US$3 per week for kerosene. Microfinance groups don’t usually serve urban slums because people have no fixed address, but Seller says the inhabitants can afford to take on loans if the product is of value to them.
“We have a really low default rate of less than two per cent,” she says. “They’re very aspirational. They’re trying to put their kids through school and they see our intervention as very empowering. The people we serve really want to make their lives better and we provide a way for them to do that. It stops them from burning kerosene so it has an environmental benefit, and if there’s light in their home the kids can study. People say their quality of life is better – they don’t have to stop living at 6pm, they can continue to enjoy life with their family in the evening.”
The decision to sell the lights, instead of giving them away for free, was made because it was a more sustainable long-term solution. “We’d seen the model working across Africa and Asia and knew we had the chance to implement it in this community group,” she says.
“Historically, when products are given away, there is no viable option to stay on and service that product. Our first city, Bangalore, is now self-sustaining of its monthly sales revenues, and four years on we are able to step in when a battery starts to fail and provide servicing, or listen to their needs and provide a new product that will help another facet of their life. We are not forcing a solution on these families – they have the option to choose whether or not it is something that they need. This is what social business is about – long-lasting solutions, that give people in poverty agency and support to make the choices that they need to make to help their families.”
After travelling back-and-forth, Seller moved to Bangalore permanently in 2015 and often experiences power cuts in her apartment, which reinforces the importance of what the company is doing. She also regularly visits homes in slum areas to remind herself what it’s like to sit next to a stove for 20 minutes trying to boil rice. “It’s definitely not a pleasant experience and it motivates us to work harder,” she says.
Forging a brighter future
Seller, who is now CEO of the company, and her colleagues designed a three-month training program and now employee around 10 pollinators each in Bangalore, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Lucknow, as well as around 15 office staff. “It’s been more successful than we originally thought,” she says. “It’s grown to a network across India which is serving 1000 different slum communities every week.”
Pollinate Energy has also begun offering other products there’s a need for, including solar fans, water filters and high-quality mosquito nets to protect people from diseases like malaria. They also work with similar organisations in other countries and hope to expand to help with other support services, such as livelihood training to help them access better jobs, health clinics and sanitation.
“We have a very ambitious goal of reaching 20 cities in India by 2020 and we’re interested to see how our model can be leveraged to serve other markets,” Seller says.
Find out more about Pollinate Energy.