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Bringing Light to India’s Urban Poor

4 minutes to read

While the world is talking about smart grids and new age energy technology, there are millions who do not even have access to electricity. There are still around 412 million people, roughly 1/3rd of the population, without access to electricity in India. At an investment cost of $41 per person, it would cost about $17 billion to connect all those without electricity today to the central grid. But grid-based electrification is often not available to remote villages and surprisingly even many living in the fast growing urban areas.

Energy poverty is now a distribution problem, not a technology problem.

Research by the World Bank found that a shocking 28% of India’s urban population lives in energy poverty. It is surprising that the slum dwellers of India are over-looked when it comes to tackling energy poverty as they are geographically not far from the grid. Unbelievably, many of the slums flanked by high-rises remain in darkness 15 years into the 21st century.

As a result these poor communities have to use firewood and kerosene to fulfil their lighting and cooking needs. According to the World Health Organization, the use of fuelwood and dung for cooking and heating causes over 400,000 premature deaths in India annually, mostly women and children. The concentration of particulate matter in the air in Indian households using biomass is over 2,000 micrograms per cubic metre, compared to the US standard of 150.

Pollinate Energy, a social enterprise founded in 2012, has come up with a solution that promises to alleviate the energy poverty and also develop entrepreneurial skills in the people from these communities to help them build clean energy micro-franchises. These franchises service urban slum residents with clean energy products, such as solar systems and smokeless cook stoves. They are also in the process of testing shelters made of sustainable materials and water filters at affordable costs.

I was part of the Pollinate Energy Fellowship and worked closely with the micro-entrepreneurs to train them to start their own businesses serving slum communities. The Pollinators (micro-entrepreneurs) are recruited largely through partnerships with local not-for-profit and microfinance organisations. Once recruited, Pollinators undergo a month of intensive training through the Fellowship Program. Each Pollinator is placed in a team with international and Indian Fellows who provide training in sales, customer relations and financial literacy. Pollinators visit their urban slum communities regularly and sell products directly to customers. Since many people cannot afford the products upfront, Pollinators offer deferred payment plans which help make products accessible to everyone – customers pay back the product in instalments over a 4-8 week period.

After just two years, the results are incredible with the customers being financially better off an average of US $86 (5,000 rupees) per annum as a direct result of purchasing the solar lights, a saving of 4.2% of customers’ average annual income. This represents savings of money otherwise spent on kerosene, as well as additional income from being able to work at night. Moreover, the benefits aren’t just monetary but range from environmental to health. Children can now study in the night and women do not have to bear the brunt of the toxic smoke from the firewood and kerosene.

The fellowship at Pollinate Energy is intended to provide a social and international focus for professionals to take a deep dive into one of the most challenging environments in the world: a start-up Indian business that works with the poorest of the poor. In my opinion, it’s an incredible opportunity for professionals and students alike to take a hiatus and think about their career direction and personal development. It also provides aspiring social entrepreneurs and change-makers with an insight into the world of social enterprise and at the same time helps grow their professional network. More information about the fellowship is available here.

Pollinate Energy has started operations in its second city now and is planning to expand to 50 Indian cities by 2020 to reach out to all the families in need of help.