India’s urban slums aren’t generally renowned as career destinations, yet for some with a more entrepreneurial bent, they are becoming just that.
For 19-year-old Krishna Bala the slum communities of Hyderabad have become his workplace. Driven by a desire to help those less fortunate, Krishna has recently joined Australian social enterprise Pollinate Energy to help thousands of families living in the slums of makeshift tents throughout the city.
Founded by six young Australians just two-and-a-half years ago, Pollinate is providing renewable energy solutions to the city’s urban poor to help alleviate energy poverty.
The burden of energy poverty
Defined by a lack of access to modern energy services, energy poverty adversely affects economic development and wellbeing. In India alone it is estimated there are 400 million people affected, with the majority relying on kerosene as their main source of energy. Toxic and expensive, kerosene is used mainly for light yet little can be achieved in these homes from the dim glow it provides – children can’t study; mothers can’t tend to household needs and the families’ health is severely compromised. The cost of the kerosene, often a tenth of the weekly income, has kept families trapped in this poverty cycle. Until now there has been little alternative.
Recognising the issues, Pollinate explored a very simple solution – solar. By using solar lighting, families will be better off financially, as they’ll be free from the ongoing financial burden of kerosene and their overall standard of living and health will improve.
Pascal Meline and Anilkumar Abburi, two of the organisation’s city co-founders in Hyderabad, introduced Krishna to Pollinate while he was taking a computer course. Intrigued by their work he decided to join Pollinate.
“I am interested in helping the poor,” explained Krishna. “I live in a community near the slums, which is similar to the communities Pollinate is helping.”
Known as a “pollinator”, Krishna is now part of Pollinate’s growing team as it expands operations to Hyderabad from a very positive start in Bangalore.
Business in a bag!
The model Pollinate has developed works on two levels: it provides community access to affordable clean energy; and also provides economic empowerment through job creation – the recruitment and training of local men and women like Krishna, and providing them with the support to start their own business selling renewable energy to the community’s families.
Currently the solar light systems cost families between AUD30-50 each and these are paid for on deferred payment scheme over five weeks. Essentially they have developed a “business in a bag”.
Krishna isn’t just a salesperson though; he is the face of Pollinate, the crucial link to the residents of the communities.
Working throughout the Banjara and Jubilee Hills, Mehdipatnam and Yousufguda districts, he has begun connecting with families across 32 communities and is quickly forming close ties, as he educates them about the benefits that renewable energy brings.
“I work at least four hours a day in the communities,” he says. “I am selling a good number of lights… but it takes a lot effort to build the relationship with the people in the communities.”
This is Krishna’s first job – apart from doing some newspaper sales and providing tuition to children in the evening.
“I have a diploma in mechanical engineering but now I am very interested in this work… I am also learning more computer skills.”
Having had minimal knowledge of solar prior to joining Pollinate, Krishna is now finding himself fully absorbed in the world of renewables and thoroughly enjoying the new journey he is on.
Unfortunately, not all communities are that easy to deal with and occasionally challenges present themselves.
“It is difficult with the repayments and bad customers, and I am still learning a lot,” Krishna says.
However comprehensive training has ensured Krishna has the skills and assurance to draw upon for those moments.
Krishna’s main motivation for joining has been to participate in helping the poor but the flexible hours are also an attraction, with the role bringing terrific personal and family benefits for him.
“It has changed my life, yes. I am learning new things… useful for me in my career… but I’m also helping my family financially.”
The most satisfying part of his work is showing potential customers the quality of light to customers.
“I have so many happy customers and I enjoy talking with them and being part of the community.”
Since inception in 2012, Pollinate has supplied almost 9000 lights to 41,229 people across 886 communities. It has a goal of reaching communities in each of the 53 tier-one cities by 2020.
Bridget Jackson is a writer with an interest in social enterprise and micro-finance initiatives, and has no commercial interest in the topic of her article. She heads a small consultancy, Seed Communications, which is dedicated to working on issues for positive social and environmental benefit.