Solar energy companies focus on the needs of the urban poor

Carlin Carr, Bangalore Community Manager
Bangalore, 17 April 2015

It's hard to talk about solar power for the poor in Bangalore without mentioning the Solar Electric Light Company, widely known as SELCO. The Bangalore-based social enterprise has pioneered bringing sustainable energy solutions to India's poor, especially in Bangalore's home state of Karnataka. However, SELCO has primarily focused on rural populations and only more recently has focused on urban communities in need. (URB.im has featured SELCO's urban work here.) While "energy poverty" is often seen as a rural issue, more organizations are beginning to focus on sustainable energy needs for India's slum households as well.

Bangalore's urban poor also face many severe energy challenges. Despite living in the IT hub, slum dwellers often live off the grid and survive by using toxic kerosene lamps for daily needs, including running their households, maintaining businesses, and studying. The World Health Organization has linked the employment of kerosene for household use to four million premature deaths worldwide. Women and children are adversely impacted because of the inordinate amount of time they spend at home. Furthermore, the dangerous, polluting energy source is not even an economical alternative. "The poor do not use kerosene because it is cheap," says a Yale study on the need for better solar access. "They are kept poor in significant part because they must rely on expensive, dirty kerosene."

Bangalore-based Pollinate Energy focuses on converting those Bangalore communities that are forced to use kerosene into solar energy users. Pollinate Energy does not create or manufacture solar energy products; rather, the organization connects slum communities to the best and most affordable products on the market, such as the highly regarded Sun King solar lamps, which are being used across South Asia and Africa. Pollinate Energy operates with a hive of "pollinators" — locally based entrepreneurs who act as micro distributors to slum communities in Bangalore. The goal is to empower the local energy entrepreneurs enough to move social businesses into the mainstream.

Pollinators run their business out of a bag — literally. The company sets them up with a "Business in a Bag" toolkit that contains helpful goodies, from a transport allowance to a smart phone equipped with a Salesforce cloud management system to track customers and orders. Pollinators also receive training and support to help launch and grow their small businesses. As of last year, Pollinate Energy had reached nearly 40,000 urban residents, and had prevented more than half a million liters of kerosene from polluting the lungs of the poor.

As for Pollinate Energy, achieving energy access for all is a key goal of the United Nations. Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary General, said, "Energy is the golden thread that connects economic growth, social equity, and environmental sustainability." As developed nations work to switch over traditional electricity users to solar, India and emerging countries like it have an opportunity to head straight to sustainable modes. Solar has become more affordable, and companies such as Pollinate Energy have come up with financing to make these products attainable for the poor. The potential of solar energy in India is massive — and one that must be continually championed, not just in India's hinterlands but even in the most hi-tech hubs.

Photo credit: Pollinate Energy

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