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Pollinate Energy - Sustainable product micro-finance, education and servicing

Local entrepreneurs provide slum communities with affordable "need" based products and door-to-door servicing.

Photo of Tom Cornish
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EXPLAIN YOUR IDEA

Problem. Slum communities in urban India often lack basic necessities such as reliable electricity, clean cookstoves, fresh water and sanitation. Problem. The centralised electricity distribution model lacks redundancy and efficiency - blackouts in India are frequent and unscheduled. There is great potential in small consumer focussed products to contribute to the greater energy independency goal on an individual basis contributing to community resilience. Cooking on wood fires fills homes with toxic smoke causing health problems and significantly reduces the quality of life. Solution. Train local Indians as entrepreneurs to service slum communities as their customers. Provide training to entrepreneurs and communities through selling products that meet their needs in a sustainable way. Selling solar lights (as a first product) offsets household kerosene and candle use, reduces smoke inhalation (equivalent to 2 packs of cigarettes a day and the 2nd biggest killer of women and children in India), reduces domestic violence, increases cooking hours, increases study hours, and recharges mobile phones. Devices are small and portable - they can respond to the uncertainties of forced removal, relocation and inclement weather associated with climate change. As a company we are shifting towards selling smoke free and efficient cook stoves. The customers and local entrepreneurs are already trained, but the product size requires us to create a new distribution model.

WHO BENEFITS?

The main beneficiary is the urban slum dweller on a family basis. Secondly, the local Indian entrepreneur benefits from training and income through his new business venture. Thirdly, the entrepreneur is trained by local and international fellows who are equipped with skills to be change makers in their own realm of influence. Finally the organisation, Pollinate Energy, who provides training and support for the entrepreneurs and communities is hoping to generate income as a social enterprise.

HOW DOES YOUR IDEA TAKE INTO ACCOUNT THE CONTEXT OF URBAN SLUMS AND CLIMATE CHANGE?

Pollinate Energy has now reached over 50,000 people in over 1500 city slums across Bangalore, Hyderabad and Kolkata. For those people through the provision of solar lighting and cook stoves to replace their kerosene lamps and open Chula’s we have saved them 48 million rupees on 930,000L of kerosene and 2.24 million KG CO2 being emitted. We are not yet financially sustainable and rely on donations to maintain operations. Under our current model, we need to increase products sales volume & diversity to meet this goal (considering our small product margins). With our ‘Uber of solar' model we are launching across 6 cities over the next year and will be in India's 50 biggest cities by 2020, changing lives of over 5 million people. Our primary product is the portable solar light - the solar light offsets emissions from burning kerosene and candles while providing affordable, reliable electricity. In an emergency situation; be it a climate change related weather event, or other natural/human disaster - the light is adaptable. It can easily be transported, providing light for up to 36 hours on full charge. The benefits of the light are many: increased working hours (and income), safety at night, decreased urban violence, decreased mosquitoes (unexpectedly), less eye degeneration due to low light conditions, less smoke and other toxic fume inhalation, and increased study hours. To help make this vision a reality our distribution system requires a revamp as the logistics currently do not allow for larger products.

IN-COUNTRY EXPERIENCE

  • Yes, for two or more years

EXPERTISE

  • I’ve worked in a sector related to my idea for at least two years

GEOGRAPHIC FOCUS

  • Yes

TELL US A BIT ABOUT YOURSELF

Pollinate Energy has mapped & verified over 1000 slum communities in India. These communities are now serviced by local Indian entrepreneurs. I am a civil engineer with a masters in energy systems migrating to social enterprise from estimating multi billion dollar projects in Australia and the UK.

IS THIS A NEW OR RECENT IDEA FOR YOU OR YOUR ORGANIZATION? HOW DOES IT DIFFER FROM WHAT YOU ARE ALREADY DOING?

Pollinate Energy has been running for a number of years and currently exists in three Indian cities; Bangalore, Hyderabad and Kolkatta. To date we have sold over 11,000 solar light systems to urban slums. We however want to expand our operations to new products and this means we need to look at new distribution models. The need to expand to new products is driven by different slum markets in different cities and a need to reach financial sustainability. Currently we train local Indians as micro-entrepreneurs, these locals each service a different segment of slums within a city run their own business selling products. They typically carry the products (lights) in a backpack around to their customers (slums). This distribution model becomes increasingly difficult as products change and quantities increase - for example smokeless cookstoves or even gas cookstoves to these communities. We want to help them more but lack a logistical and cost-efficient system.

HOW IS YOUR IDEA DIFFERENT FROM OTHER SIMILAR INITIATIVES? WHAT ARE YOU DOING DIFFERENTLY? WHAT UNIQUE ADVANTAGES DO YOU HAVE?

Too often companies/organisations come into a slum and help by providing a one off service or one off product. They do not maintain a relationship or help customers after they have given the product/service. Our model never ends. It keeps providing service to the community members on an ongoing basis while providing payment instalment options (ie. pay slowly over 5 weeks) for products they would otherwise be unable to attain. These people do not have legal documentation or proof of address to get bank accounts in the cities and they often come from rural villages looking for a better life and education for their children. Advantages: *Continued service and support to the communities *Finance options *Jobs for local Indians *Social business / enterprise *Income through international programs where professionals come to Pollinate and help solve business problems We have also ideated a solution to a safety concern that the community members had. See image. This is a safety device used to prevent children from causing gas leakages.

WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR UNANSWERED QUESTIONS ABOUT YOUR IDEA?

We have recently undertaken extensive surveys to fully understand the customer response to gas cookstoves. They want gas for multiple reasons but predominantly for health benefits, reduced time spend collecting wood, and owning gas is seen as a more prosperous family (social benefit). We understand the gas market in Hyderabad is filled with black/grey market dealers and even the big gas companies refer us to refill our gas their. The slum dwellers cannot apply for subsidized gas as 78% of them don't have the required documentation. We have an MVP and we want to put it to market. We need: *Transport logistics *International carbon offsets to act as subsidy *Product margin

WHY DO YOU THINK THE PROBLEM YOUR IDEA SOLVES FOR HASN'T BEEN SOLVED YET?

Getting gas cookstoves to urban slum dwellers who collect and use wood cookstoves, reduce associated detrimental health effects and increase time for other activities and education. This model overcomes the lack of infrastructure set up for these people to access these services.

HOW HAS YOUR IDEA CHANGED BASED ON FEEDBACK FROM YOUR COMMUNITY?

The idea comes directly from feedback from the community. The safety mechanism was a solution to a community problem and we have received good feedback - though we have decided not to roll out the product yet due to further refilling and distribution logistics.

WHAT WOULD YOU ULTIMATELY LIKE TO ACHIEVE WITH THIS IDEA? WHAT IS YOUR NEXT STEP TO GET THERE?

We want the local people to be able to have and use gas to cook. We would like them to have gas at a subsidised rate much like the rest of the populous though this seems difficult when they do not posses the required documentation. We are looking into accessing the subsidy through international carbon offsets and partnerships with gas suppliers. From here we want to expand to 20 Indian cities by 2020 and we are looking to launch into another country. We would like this product to be scalable to these other Indian cities. Note: we have looked at becoming a gas distributer but the regulations and requirements are not something we can achieve in the next few years, and are not core business

How does your idea connect to the broader system of the city where you plan to implement?

It supports all the technology and products that are already out there - it is a conduit for the common people. We further provide education through products and as our products increase so will our education outreach. We have partner organisation that we help introduce to communities so they are able to provide common services.

6 comments

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Spam
Photo of Chioma Ume
Team

Hi Tom!
Below is some feedback from our experts. We look forward to reading you responses!

Why do you think IDEO.org is the best partner to help you push the distribution model? How do you anticipate using their support?

It says users have been trained, but it not clear what feedback has been received on this specific proposal or what barriers to uptake might exist. Given this is a social enterprise, are you planning to subsidize for some people? Is this approach also sustainable for the entrepreneurs?

Spam
Photo of Tom Cornish
Team

I just scraped in with answering most of the questions above! Sorry about the delay. Let me know if there is anything more I can help you with. 

To answer some from your comment:
The entrepreneurs get paid monthly, there is a local Indian team in each city to support them, the local Indian entrepreneurs are given ongoing training and also train the "users/customers" on the product. They return to the community frequently. It takes 15-20 visits per community before they gain enough trust to even purchase the first product on average. This is because they have been through many hardships and a lot of people come in wanting to help but soon leave them in the dirt after selling a product. Our operations are based on trust and sustained service.

The community members are given phone numbers and are given the product before they have fully paid for it (they only make the first repayment instalment and they get the product). The "Pollinators" (entrepreneurs)  keep returning to the community if there are any product problems, further to make new sales into the communities, and further to collect repayments (most people pay on a payment scheme). We do not subsidise the cost of the product for the customers - it is sold at MRP, we use the profits to grow our business. Though we are not making any profits based on purely operations at the moment...

We currently rely on external funding. We need to increase sales (through new markets and products).

Spam
Photo of Chioma Ume
Team

Hi Tom, good to hear from you. Thanks for your response! Beyond funding, are there any problems you think that Amplify could help you solve, or is there something new in your model that you are hoping to try out? 

Spam
Photo of Tom Cornish
Team

Thanks for the reply Chioma. The gas products themselves are NEW and problematic under our current distribution model.

1) Funding - as you say. There are a few options for this, one of which is international carbon offsets - which is a problem in itself to solve.
2) Logistics - how can our "Pollinators" carry around gas cookstoves and other products when they currently rely on their backpack carrying goods. Or if they don't carry them around what is the delivery/service model?
3) Logistics - how do you refill your gas in India... this happens to be rather complex with no defined line on legalities.

To be completely honest we don't know how we are going to do it yet. I'm sure we are going to run into further problems. Our rapid prototyped solution only works for a gas cookstove sitting on top of a gas cylinder. If there was a separate cookstove the safety device would need to be remodelled. 

What type of problems is the amplify team looking to solve?

Spam
Photo of Chioma Ume
Team

Hi Tom, thanks for your detailed response. At Amplify, we're experts in human centered design, so we are looking to work with partners that are deeply rooted in their communities. When there is a demonstrated need for an idea from a community, we want to work with organizations to make solutions aimed at addressing that need work. This could be through designing a better product or service model to help ideas based on human insights connect with the behaviour of their intended users! Have a great holiday and see you in the new year! 

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