By Emily Luck:
Twenty-five per cent of 1.25 billion people is an awful lot of people to be living in energy poverty. Think about all of the very basic tasks that having access to electricity allows you to perform; you can switch on a light, use a refrigerator, see your family when the sun goes down, make sure your preparation and cooking of food is hygienic, read a book, study and so on.
Across all of India there are large communities of people living in energy poverty, with no signs of traditional electrification any time soon. These communities exist predominantly in villages that are simply too far away to be connected to the grid or in city slums, which consist mainly of people living in tents that are also near impossible to connect to the main power supply. Many of these people would not be able to afford this type of electricity even if it was available. The traditional solutions are simply not currently solutions for these people.
There are however, an increasing number of options emerging for these communities that aim to lift as many people as possible out of energy poverty. Working tirelessly towards providing light in slum communities across India is Australian organization, Pollinate Energy. Founded by a group of young Australians, Pollinate Energy run a number of programs harnessing the skills of both local and international entrepreneurs to identify and then sell solar lights into slum communities across India. Through their social business model, Pollinate Energy send in teams of entrepreneurs to identify the slum communities in a city, develop their business and empower and train locals to become their on-the-ground sales people or “Pollinators”. Joining Pollinate Energy’s Young Professionals Program in 2014, Brisbane resident Kate Crowley explains, “Pollinate focus on the urban poor, so the really poor communities. Rather than going out and giving them the solar lights, they actually micro finance it so that it’s done over a certain number of sustainable payments. Pollinate found that customers who actually had to pay for their light treated it better than they would if they were just given it. Pollinate hire and train local Indian Pollinators to help them set up their lights and teach them how to get the best use out of them.”
Initially the slum communities are often hesitant to accept the Pollinators and their team – especially given the company is internationally run – however the team at Pollinate Energy have devoted a lot of time to understanding the culture and attitudes of these communities and are extremely persistent. Kartik Arunachalam took part in Pollinate Energy’s Indian Fellowship Program in 2014 and explains, “Initially whenever you go to the community its rare for the community to accept it, so we have to go again and again until people are ready to listen. After many visits they understand and we are able to penetrate the community. Once the solar light goes in it is totally enlightening their lives. Students are able to study at night and their parents are happy about that, women are able to cook in light and see what they are doing, children are able to play and families are able to spend more time together.” Clearly there are a number of both social and health benefits that emerge through the use of solar lights. The community tends to become a safer, happier and more productive place and more and more families are able to move away from using kerosene lamps, which are as toxic as smoking two packets of cigarettes each day.
The impact that these solar lights have is enormous and immediate. They assist in filling the void that is left by India’s large-scale centralised systems. Pollinate Energy founder Alexie Seller explains exactly where the organisation fits into the big picture, “It has to come from both sides, there are large amount of people for whom distributed small-scale renewable energy is the best solution right now. That’s not to say that we want them to live in a tent on the side of the road forever, what we hope is that by buying the solar light they take the leap onto clean energy, they start to save money, they start to have many more opportunities open up, their working hours and opportunities for their kids to study can start to propel them out of the situation they are in. We can be there to help them step up that ladder, which is where our new products will fit in.” Although these lights undoubtedly make a huge difference within these communities, a light alone is simply not enough to lift these people completely out of energy poverty. Many of the people in the slums use wood fire as opposed to gas, which is both less efficient and a greater health risk. A huge problem also emerges from the preparation and storage of food, with up to fifty per cent of the food produced being wasted due to a lack of refrigeration. Pollinate Energy are already looking to bridge some of these gaps and their current goals include providing gas cooking facilities and tablets that can be charged using the solar lights to provide entertainment and education within the communities. The organisation is constantly looking forward and developing as many technologies as possible to eradicate energy poverty in the city slums.
Pollinate Energy are not alone in their bid to improve the quality of life for the many people living in energy poverty and a lot is being done by small-scale organisations. The question is: Is as much being done from a large-scale perspective?