Each year, Australian Ethical sends one employee to volunteer on-the-ground with a program we support through our Community Grants. This year, Pamela Smillie from our Risk and Compliance team visited Pollinate Energy in Bangalore, India. Pamela shares her experience of facing poverty and finding hope in the slums thanks to a simple solar-powered lamp.
In May 2018 I joined the Pollinate Professional Fellowship in the Bangalore ‘Hive’ headquarters. Along with 18 other professionals from various countries and professional backgrounds, all with a keen interest in social enterprise, we were there
to help Pollinate assess the impact of a selection of their products: solar lights, solar fans, mosquito nets, water filters and cookers.
Bangalore is a prospering, cosmopolitan city and while keeping with traditions there is a strong western influence (seen by the number of micro-breweries!). It has been described as the Silicon Valley of India as many tech/IT firms operate out of the city. As a result, there is a construction boom attracting an influx of people from rural communities looking for work. Combined with a rapid shortage of accommodation to house the influx, this has led to the growth and emergence of slums – about one-fifth of Bangalore’s population lives in slums.
Pollinate Energy, a social enterprise established in 2012 in Bangalore by six Australians, began with the mission to change the lives of those living in Indian slum communities by providing sustainable, clean energy through affordable solar products. Local community members (called ‘Pollinators’) are employed to build relationships and sell the Pollinate products. The Fellowship was based in Bangalore but Pollinate has spread across India and now operates in Lucknow, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Kanpur. As at June 2017 Pollinate has provided over 22,000 products impacting over 100,000 people.
My knowledge of poverty in India was restricted to what I had seen in the media and informed by my western sensibilities. I was uncertain as to how I would feel actually visiting a slum community and experiencing this way of living. People living in these communities don’t see themselves as being poor. They have moved to Bangalore to earn a living and provide for their families with many working in construction or as housekeepers. They have a roof over their heads and aspirations, so I felt respect for people, not sympathy. We were able to see and hear what life is like for the residents and a large number of people we spoke with liked where they lived.
That being said, these living conditions cannot be normalised and while people may seem happy, life is hard – access to clean water, sanitation, mosquitoes and the threat of eviction are very real struggles. Bangalore is a city of contrasts and you often see clean, new apartment blocks looking down onto the slums.
What was fantastic to see and understand was how a solar light can improve the quality of life for an entire family. It allows children to study, adults to cook or work and provides families with a sense of safety. A key benefit of using a solar light is the improvement it can make to the health of customers as it removes the need for them to use kerosene, or worse burning plastic for lighting. It’s an unusual but positive sight when you walk into a community and look up to see solar panels perched on top of the homes. It makes the impact that Pollinate has really tangible and I was encouraged to see that residents recognise the benefits of the products.
We attracted a lot of interest when we visited communities, and children in particular were very curious and keen to engage with us. Despite the language barrier, we were able to communicate via the universal language of sport. They would often invite us to play cricket, badminton, throw a ball or do some handstands! Taking selfies amused both adults and children and I lost count of the number of selfies that were taken.
We were welcomed into people’s homes and they would often sit on the floor to accommodate us and offered us tea and food. People were proud of where they lived and inviting us into their home was a very common thing for them to do (besides, no was not an option).
Nagrathna (pictured below) was one hospitable host. She is the breadwinner in her household and works hard to send her son to a good school so that he can have the education that she and her husband were unable to have. She has lived in her home for over ten years and told us how she loves the community because she has family and friends around her. She also talked about the trust she had in the Pollinator and her belief in the products Pollinate produce. It was encouraging to see such a strong, confident woman in an environment where many of the men do the talking! A really exciting development in Pollinate is their recent merger with a US-based social enterprise called Empower Generation. Empower Generation focuses on empowering female entrepreneurs in Asia to supply energy in impoverished communities.
The Fellowship was a really unique, enriching experience both professionally and personally and I feel very fortunate to have been able to take part. It allowed me to use my existing skills to solve real problems that Pollinate faces while developing new skills and learning from others in the group.
A key takeaway from my two weeks in Bangalore has been realising how having strong relationships and being in a safe, inclusive community is such an important aspect of life. It’s special to see the relationships and level of trust that Pollinators have built with their customers and how customers believe in the products that Pollinate provides.
I never thought something as simple as a light could have such an impact on how people live and feel. It really is life-changing. I look forward to seeing Pollinate expand and continue to improve lives. And I encourage everyone to take a look at Pollinate’s website to learn even more about this unique organisation: pollinateenergy.org.
We’re proud to be able to support life-changing projects like Pollinate Energy through our Australian Ethical Community Grants. Keep an eye on our Community Grants page to see the most recent winners.
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