Towards the light
Alexie Seller, CEO of Pollinate Energy, an Australian charity which provides solar lighting to poverty-stricken families in India, talks about changing life in urban slums, one solar panel at a time.
At 17, Alexie Seller wanted to explore the world and contribute towards community development. After working as an English teacher in the Dominican Republic and a team leader across Australia’s onshore and offshore detention centres, she still felt the need of contributing more to society, so she decided to study engineering to pursue her interest in renewable energy and sustainable solutions.
After getting her degree, she joined the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) and Engineers Without Borders, a network of humanitarian engineers who offer sustainable solutions to world problems, and led the energy hub in Sydney where Seller met a group of young Australians who were planning a trip to India.
Soon she not only found herself on the trip, but also staying in a shanty tucked behind an apartment complex in Bengaluru trying to help families who were in desperate need of solar lighting to replace harmful kerosene lamps.
A BRIGHTER FUTURE
“There, I met a young woman named Lakshmi. She came from rural India, and was married at the age of 12. She set off with her husband in search of work and ended up in this community. By the time I met her, she was 25, and so was I. She was the mother of four young children — three of them girls — who she was desperately trying to keep at school. However, with just a kerosene lamp to light their home it was nearly impossible for them to study after dark,” recalls Seller, continuing, “Lakshmi told me that if she had access to a solar light, she could finally provide her children with the brighter future that she’d been dreaming of.”
It was this encounter that encouraged her to launch Pollinate Energy, a social enterprise bringing life-changing products to the millions living in poverty in India’s urban slums. Recently, Pollinate Energy featured in Vivid Sydney, a festival of music, light and ideas. “With my group of young Australian friends, we recruited and trained local women and youngsters — our ‘Pollinators’ — to serve families in slums and villages with life-changing products like solar lanterns and clean cookstoves.
They provide these products on payment plans so that even someone like Lakshmi can afford them. She was one of our first customers, and has managed to keep her four children in an English-medium school, and now earns additional income as a sales representative for Pollinate Energy,” says Seller.
“I raised the funds that launched and sustained our operation from day one, and built a fellowship programme that would go on to provide hundreds of people from around the world with an opportunity to have meaningful impact and learn from a social enterprise at the bottom of the pyramid,” says Seller, who moved from Melbourne to Bengaluru in 2016 to focus on developing the operations of the Indian enterprise, and was nominated by the co-founders as the company’s first CEO in 2017.
Providing sustainable technology is one part of the solution, but convincing people to replace the existing products with the eco-friendly ones is a big challenge. “While sustainability is a motivating factor behind our work, the fact is that sustainable products are cheaper in the long-term and better for the families. It’s important we find out what the family cares about, and then address that to help them understand the product benefit. So, even though a solar light does not emit black carbon, the reason our customers buy the light is because it helps them save money ($85US a year, 15 per cent of their income). The light is also brighter for doing chores and reading. In this way, we are able to help families transition to solutions that are better for the planet, and their own lives,” says Seller.
THE PEOPLE AND THE PRODUCTS
Pollinate Energy finds ‘Pollinators’ through local partner NGOs and particularly MFI/ loan groups. “We look for people who have limited education and no other job prospects. They usually work in the informal sector. By joining us, they instantly get a stable salary and insurance benefits, as well as a good sales commission programme that helps them continue to grow their monthly income. We have a strong focus on recruiting women, who stand to benefit the most from our support — they often start earning for the first time, or triple their salaries when they join us,” Seller informs.
Their products include solar lights and other solar technologies, as well as clean cookstoves, pressure cookers and mosquito nets. “We’re constantly adding products that help families live healthier, better lives, and improve sustainability outcomes. Our products are all high quality, easy to use, off the shelf — this means that the customers don’t need to know anything technical to use it. That said, the ‘Pollinators’ always do a product demo to show customers the key features and explain any hazards or potential issues, like keeping the light cable out of the way of rats who chew through them overnight!” says Seller.
MAKING IT AFFORDABLE
The ‘Pollinators’ have a range of options to offer customers, who may need different lengths of repayment based on their earnings/ savings. They give the family the product on the first installment, and return to collect the remaining installments each week. “The payment plans range from 4-12 weeks. We don’t need more than the customer’s name, location (slum in which they are in) and phone number to ensure repayments are made. Our defaults are less than 2 per cent,” points out Seller.
Pollinate Energy has aspirations to scale its programme to wherever there are communities in need. Already present in four states in India, and across Nepal, they have reached 500,000 people and trained over 500 women and disadvantaged youth through their sales programme. The company aims at leveraging their women-led distribution model to become the leading clean energy distribution network around the globe, employing one million ‘Pollinators’ by 2020.
“India and Australia are interesting, and incredibly different sustainable energy markets. Australia is resource-rich, including wind, water, sun, coal and uranium and has declining energy demand — which means that Australia has reduced its dependency on fossil fuels and old technology! Slowly, the regulation and investment market is changing and more renewable energy programmes are underway,” says she, adding, “For India, the challenge is different — about 300 million people still aren’t on the grid, and even if they are, energy is unreliable. India needs to ramp up its energy capabilities, and for the most part, sustainable technologies are proving to be the better financial investment. I think we’re in an interesting era, as people worldwide come to terms with the ramifications on polluting industries, and while we still don’t have a good way to govern and manage this right now, things are getting better and I’m hopeful for a more sustainable future.”