Pollinate Energy, providing clean energy products to slum communities

Sankalp Awards Interview Series 2014

Pollinate Energy is a social business that provides affordable clean energy products to slum communities in India through a distribution network of local entrepreneurs. Co-founder, Ben Merven, talks about their innovative business model and the challenges they’ve overcome while working with, and for, people at the base of the pyramid.

What is the core value proposition of your business? 

Essentially, Pollinate Energy is a distribution business working exclusively with urban slum communities with the goal of providing them with sustainable and affordable products that improve their lives.

In each city that we operate in we have a number of local entrepreneurs that we call Pollinators who work in the slum communities in that city. We typically have twenty Pollinators in each city and each of them is assigned a region of the city which they are responsible for. At our headquarters in Bangalore, we provide start-up capital to our pollinators, giving them training, access to a smartphone with a Salesforce cloud management system, transport allowance, a rolling stock loan and many other bits and pieces which we collectively call a Business in a Bag. This is essentially a jumpstart to get them going.

Moving ahead in the process, we handle a lot of the administrative work for the Pollinators – keeping track of their sales, making sure we keep updating their systems etc. We also research new products that are available in the market and we vet them before providing them to the Pollinators to be able to sell in the communities. The Pollinators also offer deferred payment plans to their customers in the communities because, most of the time, people in the slums can’t offered to pay for a solar light or similar product up front so we also facilitate that deferred payment plan.

A slum community where Pollinate Energy operates
A slum community where Pollinate Energy operates
A Pollinator at work
A Pollinator at work

Tell us a bit more about the BoP segment that you reach.

The people living in these urban slum communities are typically economic migrants who have usually come from rural areas. They move into the city looking for work opportunities so you could characterise them as temporary settlers. They settle in cities by building little tent communities with tents being made of bamboo poles and tarpaulin sheets. The key problem for them is that because of their temporary status, it’s very hard for them to access any kind of finance and because of where they are situated it’s hard for them to access the kind of products that would be very useful to them. For example, a good quality solar light with a mobile phone charger isn’t exactly something one could buy off the shelf of a local corner store in Bangalore. So we facilitate the linking of those two things together.

What feedback have you received from the beneficiaries?

The feedback has generally been good. Pollinate is committed to providing an ongoing service to our beneficiaries so you won’t find a single one of our customers who, for example, had a problem with their product and we haven’t dealt with it. If they do have a problem they can call our Head Office and troubleshoot the problem. So in that respect I think the customers like us a lot.

We’ve done quite a lot of M&E surveys with our customers too and we had a UN film crew out here late last year interviewing our customers that gave us an idea of what people think of us. Overall, people seem to be very happy with us particularly with our solar light which is hugely beneficial to these migrants who’ve had to rely on poor quality, unhealthy kerosene lamps until now. Being able to use a solar light that lasts for a long time, doesn’t produce air pollutants, and that can charge a mobile phone, is a big step up for these communities.

There are also a number of not so tangible benefits that we hear anecdotally and that are hard to measure. For example, children who are now able to read and do their homework at night. We’ve definitely seen evidence of this when we visit the communities.

Beneficiary with a solar light
Beneficiary with a solar light

How receptive were people to products that they wouldn’t have known about and are very different from what they are used to?

It was difficult in the beginning from a trust point of view. I have a feeling it was to do with people thinking we would provide them this product and then disappear leaving them stuck with a bad product. That was a hurdle in the beginning but we’ve persevered over time and made sure the Pollinators do go back into the community approximately once a week so they become familiar faces and people get to know them. That fostered a sense of trust and now people generally know who we are or have heard of us so it’s not too difficult.

It terms of behaviour change, it’s dependent on the specific products. With solar light, for example, it is pretty easy to demonstrate the benefits when you put it next to a kerosene lamp. We give regular demonstrations to new communities and if people want to take a demonstration model, we give it to them for a week to try it. They give a down payment on the product to the Pollinator, and if they’re not happy with it a week later, the Pollinator refunds their money and takes the product back. That gives them a chance to use the product and understand it. I can’t actually remember the last time someone took a demo product and decided not to purchase it in full.

Products like efficient cookstoves can be more challenging because people are used to cooking on the traditional cook stoves called ‘chulas’ that give a particular flavour to the food. The differences between a chula and our efficient cook stoves aren’t so visible either – it’s hard to “see” better combustion, for example. So there is much more of a behaviour change required and it’s often harder for pollinators to sell them. But we are continually researching how other people around are doing the same thing in different parts of the world to be able to train our Pollinators to communicate the benefits of these products.

Demonstrating the clean energy products
Demonstrating the clean energy products

What would you say has been the most challenging aspect of starting and running your inclusive business?

Recruiting the Pollinators was difficult in the beginning. The main challenge was that it is considered a taboo for people to work in these types of communities. So getting people committed to the job was a difficult task when we first started. But we overcame that by partnering with local organisations. For example, we have a partnership with an NGO that works with Self Help Groups in these communities and they advertise our Pollinator positions to the women in their SHGs.

What is the one factor that has most enabled your inclusive business to progress this far?

It’s definitely been our co-founding team. From the very beginning they have been the standout. We actually have five co-founders and when we tell people that they are generally aghast and are surprised we all still manage to get along. But for Pollinate Energy, that is one of our unique characteristics – that all of five of us get along and we all bring a distinct set of skills to the table. Between the five of us we’ve been able to achieve quite a lot in a relatively short period of time.

As a Sankalp finalist, many doors will open to funding & partnering opportunities and exchange of knowledge with others. How critical are these to the success of your business?

Very critical. Every problem that we solve these days is with the help of someone in our network. So the more people we know in a wider range of industries can only benefit us.

Where do you see your business five years from now?

I wouldn’t necessarily put a five year stamp on it but we are definitely looking to expand very quickly in the coming years. We are expanding to Chennai in about a month, followed by Hyderabad in January 2015. In the 12 months after that we are going to attempt to expand into five cities within 6 months and that should pilot our ability to roll out to a number of cities over a short period of time. Once we manage that, our aim is to roll out in sets of five cities across India. We are primarily targeting the 53 cities that have more than a million people living in them because that’s where we believe you find slum communities of economic migrants.

What is the one piece of advice you would give to entrepreneurs looking to start an inclusive business?

Essentially my piece of advice would be to learn to let go and try not to do everything yourself. In the beginning, you usually want ownership over everything you’re doing and you want to make sure it’s done properly, so you end up doing it yourself. The hardest part is to let go of certain aspects of your start-up and entrust it to the people around you. But it’s important to do this as it is beneficial in all respects. It gives you a lot more time to think about bigger things including the strategic direction of the business. At the same time, it empowers the people you’re working with and enables them to grow, which only strengthens the business too.

The Pollinate Energy team
The Pollinate Energy team