Amresh runs a small shop in Bangalore, India. A few years ago, he had a pretty big problem.
Amresh used kerosene lights to light his shop in the evening, hoping to catch some of the foot traffic from people heading home from work after dark. But the lights weren’t enough to help people see what his products were. His business struggled.
When he heard that a company called Pollinate Energy was selling solar lamps, Amresh jumped at the opportunity to purchase one.
The solar lamp changed his life.
His new lighting meant that he could keep the shop open later and attract customers who were on their way home. Because of the light, his shop also became a neighborhood gathering spot, where people would socialize and catch up after a day of work.
Within two months, his income had doubled. And just a few months after that, Amresh had saved enough money to move his entire family out of the slum.
According to Pollinate Energy COO Alexie Seller, Amresh’s story is just one of many.
Pollinate is a small company focused on distributing much-needed products to people who wouldn’t have access to them otherwise. It was founded in 2013 with the goal of tackling energy poverty — no small undertaking. Their efforts have been supported by The Intrepid Foundation since 2015, which matches all donations made to Pollinate dollar-for-dollar.
Because while those of us in the western world tend to take access to things like light at night for granted, around 1.2 billion people around the world do not have access to electricity.
“We have the privilege of living in a country where there is a lot of infrastructure, which is paid for by the government. … our electricity is actually really low-cost. So, what happens for a family that’s living with no access to electricity is that they have to pay out of their own pockets for every single energy expense that they have,” Seller explains. “And [in India] it means that they are spending 5-10% of their earnings on kerosene, which is not even really a useful light.”
Kerosene is also hazardous — it causes indoor air pollution, which is the second-leading cause of death for women and young children.
With this in mind, Pollinate set out to offer sustainable solutions to everyday energy problems. And their approach is pretty unique.
When first preparing to distribute solar lamps, Pollinate sent representatives known as “Pollinators” into the slums where they met families and spoke to them about their needs, their finances, and their willingness to pay for certain products. Pollinate uses the information gathered to help select the products it will distribute and to determine the price point for those products.
Why go to all of that trouble? Seller explains that Pollinate is determined to make lasting change and that the only way to do that is to involve the people who it is trying to serve.
Pollinate also does its research to make sure it's not asking anyone to pay more than they can afford. Pollinate offers five-eight-week repayment plans based on a family’s weekly budget so they can get the products they need without the pressure to have the money immediately.
Though their products are intentionally low-cost, Pollinate makes a point of selling, rather than donating, them.
“By selling a product, you give someone the opportunity to refuse it,” wrote Nora Malm, a former fellow at Pollinate, in a blog post.
She continued, “When we approach the community members as customers, their agency is immediately recognised. But when we are feeling sorry for someone, their agency is removed, and we are prone to think that somehow we know better.”
Pollinate doesn’t want to assume it knows what the people it's serving need. It wants to work with them to determine appropriate solutions and give them the chance to invest in their future.
“We’re actually giving our customers the choice to make this improvement in their lives and to buy what it is that is most useful for them. … Because we charge for the product and we work with the customers, especially when we’re rolling out something different, we pick up very quickly what is not working,” Seller says. “And that is exactly what social business is proven to do that charitable giving has not.”
Pollinate currently offers eight products to around 200,000 households across four cities in India.
And it wants to help as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. Pollinate has plans to expand into 20 cities within the next five years.
To do this, it keeps recruiting Pollinators and has even started a fellowship program, allowing about 300 fellows from around the world to contribute to the program on the ground floor. The Intrepid Foundation is helping Pollinate make these massive goals a reality through the Travel for Good campaign, which will see over $25,000 donated to support Pollinate's fight against energy poverty in India.
Improving the quality of life for people around the world is a monumental task. It takes teamwork and enthusiasm, and at times, it can feel overwhelming.
But, “until you get started, you’re not going to really understand deeply enough what is going on and how you can actually make a difference,” Seller explains. She encourages everyone to take a leap of faith and dive right in to create positive change.