The Council speaks to SET100 Finalist Alexie Seller, from Pollinate Energy

30th May 2018

ViewsImpact CommunitiesInnovationQuality Access

Alexie Seller is the Cofounder and CEO of Pollinate Energy and one of the finalists in the SET100 initiative. She has always been part of the energy industry, having graduated with first class honours from a degree in Mechanical Engineering and Arts, and worked for one of Australia’s most progressive renewable energy retailers before setting her sights on Bangalore. Currently she focusses her efforts on bringing sustainable energy, clean water and financial independence to communities usually deemed as untouchable by providing the tools and the knowledge for it.

How did you get involved with the SET100 initiative?
I cofounded Pollinate energy just 5 years ago and only came across the SET100 initiative very close to the deadline. We submitted our application a day or two before the due date and made it to final round, which was really awesome!

Tell me about your work and vision.
We work with marginalised communities from India and Nepal, bringing clean energy tech to countries in the bottom of the pyramid. In our early research many years ago we found families living in slums in major Indian cities who were burning kerosene for fuel in locations where they should have had access to a better product. However, they didn’t know about them nor had access to any financial services so they couldn’t buy them upfront.

We started Pollinate Energy with the vision to Improve lives families in poverty through the distribution of these life changing products. Since we started in lndia we sold over 30,000 clean energy products, impacting more than 140,000 people every day in their homes. We recently started work in Nepal by taking on a network of sales agents who have sold 100,000 products across remote villages.

Our future vision is to scale up our solution, leveraging local communities and entrepreneurs so they can gain a meaningful income while helping people in need. We’re creating a self-sustainable model which has the potential of reaching many communities worldwide.

Tell us something that makes you and your organisation unique?
Although there are many organisations around the world who do similar work, they tend to focus on just one product line. What we have done is recognising the people’s welfare while also tackling energy poverty and helping Indian people get access to solar power.

At this stage they still lack access to many other products that would make their life better like clean water filters, mosquito nets or women sanitary products. Most people just don’t have the knowledge nor the ability to purchase them, so we diversified our product range to have more impact on each family that we work with, instead of selling one solar cell and moving on. Also, through our empowerment model we are focused on ensuring that the people who do sales work for us get adequate pay, because they put a lot of effort and it’s a tough business.

We also offer a franchisee option in Nepal right now, which enables women to start their own businesses and to basically set up their own distribution network so they become leaders in their community, highly respected for their work.

Are there any standout examples of these franchisees? Sounds like a pretty special achievement
Yes. Her name is Chia, coming from a remote village in East Nepal. She belongs to the Dalit community, the lowest caste in the south Asian communities. Typically, a woman on that social level would get no respect from her family or husband. They’re treated mostly like slaves, with no opportunities for education or work. In fact, she had no education beyond primary school and would have probably ended up working menial jobs as a sweeper or a rubbish collector. She joined our network 4 years ago and decided she wanted to take the steps to work as a sales person, to help more people in her community access solar lighting.

Over those four years she has totally transformed. She’s now respected in her home, she has financial independence, earning more than her husband. In fact, she was nominated to deputy major while her husband was listed as a potential candidate. Chia is now a very strong leader in her community who has the power to help others get out of the poverty situation she used to be in. Pretty phenomenal story.

Do you have any advice for new start-ups?
Yeah, I think the number one advice is that there are a lot of people doing this work and we all have a lot of knowledge and skills to share, so my advice would be to connect with the sector and what people are doing, but don’t be afraid to try new things.

What kind of clean energy technology do you work with?
So, in terms of product, the main one we sell are solar lanterns with phone chargers, they’re very popular. We also sell solar powered fans, also very popular now in the summer. We also sell a range of house improving products like mosquito nets and repellents, women hygiene products, cookers and appliances for the kitchen that save time, so people can reduce the burden of their chores. We also have as a tech novelty in our payment plan system. It’s set up on Salesforce, the CRM tool, which has an app that all our (pollinators) agents can use in the field while they’re making sales and collecting repayments. That allows them to always see which customers owe them money and when they have to collect that money by, so they can stay on top of the repayment and plan.

In which ways would you say that your work has driven economic and social growth?
I can think of a significant one from Bangalore. The families that live here,  are not in constructed slums like Mumbai. They live in shanty towns made of plastic tents and old construction materials. They’re recent migrants, who have come in the last five to ten years from villages where the agricultural system is falling apart and then can’t earn enough money, so they’ve come looking for work in the city. We wanted to serve them because no one else was serving them and they were flocking to the city every year. What we found is that they’re deeply connected to their old villages, so they tend to buy additional products and then take them back home, where they continue to have a use for their family members.

Even though we thought there were 20,000 households in Bangalore that we could potentially serve, that’s now looking up to hundreds of thousands counting the rural villages where these people are from. We are now looking for ways to work with strong leaders in these communities to try and find a more efficient way of continuing that propagation of products out to these rural communities.

Going forward, what do you expect to see having been recognised by the SET100 and working with the World Energy Council?
It’s exciting for us to be up with those who won, because it’s a new place for us to communicate our work and the World Energy Council it convenes a vast network of experts in the energy sector and beyond,  from all walks of life. I’m looking forward to being connected with that group of people and finding new opportunities through that network to grow our business and support other people around the world who are doing a similar thing.

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