Lighting up India’s slums
Volunteering with Pollinate Energy allows young Aussie NICKY O’NEILL to become a change agent in the slums of Kolkata
Having just finished a five-year degree at the University of Sydney, I found myself with several months of free time before I entered the workforce as a graduate consultant. Naturally, friends and family suggested I travel – ‘take a break, enjoy the relaxation!’ However, with my passion for social justice, I sought to apply the skills I had just learnt in my Commerce degree in an area of sustainability and poverty alleviation.
After many Google searches I came across Pollinate Energy, an Australian social enterprise working in Indian slums to install solar lights, mosquito nets, and water filters, to improve people’s quality of living. Pollinate were looking for students to help continue their mission in Kolkata. I applied instantly.
I also applied through my university for a scholarship to cover travel expenses as part of the federal government’s New Colombo Plan which provides financial assistance to students wishing to develop skills abroad. (More information and how to apply can be found at: http://dfat.gov.au/people-to-people/new-colombo-plan/mobility-program/pages/mobility-program.aspx ).
I arrived in Kolkata and was met by the warmest, most friendly program coordinators, a Spanish woman, Julia, and an Italian giant, Matteo, both of whom had also recently graduated from university and sought to work on meaningful projects. I was whisked off to the ‘Hive’, a place to call home for the next month, where I would live with seven other students from Australia and New Zealand.
The next day, any chance of a lazy sleep-in was quashed. We got up and began what we came to do immediately. Fundamentally, Pollinate Energy sells life changing products to those who need them most, and consequently our objective for the month was to reach as many people living in the poorest slums as possible. We were divided into project teams to help facilitate this objective.
As part of the marketing team, I spent six days a week going into Kolkata slum communities and helping to raise the brand profile of Pollinate, and raise awareness of the benefits of various products. For example, selling one solar light – which is at the core of Pollinates product offering – benefits 4.55 people.
Switching from kerosene, which is the nasty alternative to solar light, the health of an entire family is improved, as kerosene is directly linked to impaired lung functioning, cancers, respiratory illness, and is a significant cause of burns. By no longer relying on kerosene, each family also saves around $80 per year which is more than half of their average income!
From an environmental perspective, switching to solar means reducing carbon emissions, and also provides the family around 16,500 hours each year in more productive hours. This increase in productive hours enables children to study and helps them stay in school, and allows the parents to continue producing or providing services after dark, encouraging their economic empowerment.
Each day, along with a Pollinator (a Pollinate Energy sales representative who comes from the community) and an Indian fellow (a young professional or student fluent in Bengali and English), I would visit various communities to do product demonstrations, and promote the benefits of products offered. During the visits we would interact with community members – listening to their needs, understanding their daily lives and finding ways to give them further benefits.
If I thought of ways to improve this process, Pollinate encouraged me to implement my ideas, as it did for everyone else. I saw the need to promote the benefits of using these products, which I had previously been unaware of. So, during my time in India, I created product pamphlets and product catalogues.
After product demonstrations and community engagement, we would be welcomed back to the homes of community members and would play games with the children. We were often asked to have many photos taken with all the family members – which was a very new experience for me!
After drinking about a million cups of chai throughout the day, we would all head back to the Hive for a communal dinner, where the house cook, Sangeeta, prepared delicious Bengali dinners, full of roti, kachori, paneer, cauliflower and potato curries. Night time often consisted of us all relaxing on the Hive’s rooftop, brainstorming how to better reach customers, or exploring Kolkata city by night, going to College or Park Street, or finding new street foods to try.
Although we worked a lot, we always had fun. On our days off we were fortunate enough to visit the Sundarbans, and I was delighted to attend two Indian weddings.
Pollinate offered me a once in a lifetime experience. It was an excellent way of linking an Australian to India. It was humbling to be able to help those who live in absolute poverty become economically empowered. I could see the direct benefit each product had for a family, and found the program highly rewarding as ideas were implemented and benefits tangible. I also made life-long friends, and the people I met will always have a place to stay when they come to Australia.
I highly recommend the Pollinate Energy fellowship. The experience has left a lasting impact. The hospitality, happiness and determination I encountered in India has provided me with direction on how to better my everyday life, and I will continually be involved with Pollinate to achieve their vision of eradicating energy poverty and helping those who need it most.
To find out more visit: https://pollinateenergy.org/
Visit Pollinate on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/PollinateEnergy/