Green energy solutions for urban poor

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Eradicating energy poverty is the challenging task of a group of young eco warriors
As global economies lobby to contain spiralling energy consumption, fringe communities in developing countries have quite literally been left in the dark. In today’s world of tablets, touch screens and texting, ironically, many still face acute energy poverty. According to estimates, 1.3 billion people worldwide have no direct access to electricity, of which 400 million live in India alone. As the sun sets, their lives come to a grinding halt.
There is a widening gulf between the haves and the have-nots. Lack of proper infrastructure and poor awareness has forced those living below the poverty line in rural and semi-urban areas to rely heavily on age-old practices like kerosene lamps and coal-fired stoves that are not only harmful to environment, but also pose a serious health hazard.
In a bid to improve the living conditions of such Indian families, a group of young eco warriors have been striving to create safer and more affordable lighting solutions. Known as Pollinate Energy, for this dedicated team, social impact outweighs profit.
Embracing sustainable production and consumption concepts, Pollinate’s Young Professionals Program, has been regularly sending experienced volunteers to educate and train local communities in India and thereby empower them.
Pollinate Energy co-founder and director Emma Colenbrander said the program, which has a far-reaching social vision, brings together Australian professionals with Indian micro-entrepreneurs to help promote the distribution of safer, more affordable clean energy solutions to urban poor communities. Besides removing the burden on unsustainable fuels, the programme also aims to increase overall productivity and foster economic independence.
Global technical management services provider AECOM is one of the Pollinate’s first corporate partners. AECOM employees, Sydney-based landscape architect Belinda Dods, environmental engineer Rosanna Sanderson (Brisbane) and engineering geologist Johannes Wilson (Christchurch), recently volunteered in Bangalore as part of Pollinate Energy’s Young Professionals Program. During their India stint, the trio worked closely with local entrepreneurs, or ‘Pollinators’, mentoring them as they introduced solar lanterns and smokeless cookstoves in the local community.
“AECOM sees ‘social businesses’ like those championed by Pollinate Energy as a solution to environmental, energy and economic challenges,” AECOM Chief Executive, Australia New Zealand, Michael Batchelor stated.
“Our people are extremely passionate about improving liveability, sustainability and connectivity – in their own communities and around the world – and we are glad to support innovations and programs that do so,” he added.
What drew Dods to the project is Pollinate’s strong focus on innovation. The former international trade and business finance professional left behind a thriving career in corporate sector to follow a passion in landscape design and architecture. Her interest in sustainable technologies also led her to compete in the International Solar Decathlon, where her team finished third. More importantly, the experience certainly triggered a passion for innovative and sustainable design as well as desire to use this to drive social change.
Indian Link caught up with Belinda Dods to find out more about her involvement with Pollinate Energy’s Young Professional Programme
Indian Link (IL): What prompted you to volunteer for Pollinate programme? What was the experience like?
Belinda Dods (BD): I’ve always been interested in social businesses and was eager to find out more about how Pollinate Energy is achieving its goal to ‘eradicate energy poverty’. So when my manager approached me to apply, I was really excited.
The program totally exceeded my expectations. We had incredible speakers join us to discuss the finer points of social business, and this helped us gain a greater appreciation for the problem and the solutions out there.
As well as the work we completed in the communities, another facet of the program was to develop a part of Pollinate Energy’s business. Another Sydneysider, Lorenn Ruster and myself were tasked with promoting advocacy for Pollinate Energy’s cause in Australia. Pollinate Energy has teamed up with some very clever local talent; design firm Amigo & Amigo and public engagement firm Wildwon, to create the very first solar powered VIVID Festival lighting installation. We will be liaising as Pollinate Energy Ambassadors to see this exciting project come to fruition. Our roles as Ambassadors will also see us more broadly assisting with their operations in Australia.
Having travelled through India previously, I had an idea of what it would be like, but faced with such grinding poverty, the importance of organisations like Pollinate Energy really hits home. The low would definitely have to be the realisation that many of the people in the communities have no legal rights and their fate and homes are under constant strain and uncertainty. The high was most certainly the people: the Pollinate Energy founders and their vast energy for this cause, the young professionals from India, Australia and New Zealand with their fresh ideas and enthusiasm, the Pollinators who welcomed us in and guided us through our community experiences, and the communities themselves with their warmth and kindness.
IL: Tell us more about your specific role with this project? What did it involve?
BD: We were partnered with a ‘Pollinator’, and accompanied them to communities, helping develop sales strategies to improve and grow their respective businesses. The current program sees us introducing fuel-efficient cook stoves into the community. The cookstoves burn at least 50% less wood and emit at least 50% less smoke, so are better for peoples’ health (people mostly cook inside within the midst of clouds of smoke) and economically better, saving them money on fuel. Having discussed our approach for the day, we head out as a team to a slum community to do demonstrations – making chai and explaining the benefits of the product. As a group we assess our strategy and propose changes for the next day. The second part of our role sees us involved in working bees. The three groups look to bring in a source of income that can subsidise the social part of the business by creating pictorial guides for the products to be used by the predominately illiterate users and advocating Pollinate Energy’s work.
IL: How did the team work to educate people on urban fringes about cost effective renewable energy resources? What was the reception to this novel idea?
BD: It is difficult with any new product to convince the community that it does all it is said to do, but it only takes one person to give it a go to gain the trust of a community. One woman cooking chapati tested the cooking time on both their traditional fires and the new fuel-efficient cookstoves; the benefits where obvious with the cookstove taking far less time and using far less wood. So it’s just a matter of time before they infiltrate the communities on a large scale. The initial solar light products are at the point now where they almost sell themselves. People can see the benefits for their own eyes and have come to trust the Pollinators and their products.
IL: Who were some of the other participants and what did they bring on board to the project?
BD: From India, Neelima Jain, Keshav Lakshman and Sneha Kariyappa were part of our team; and from Australia there was Holly Hyder, Lorenn Ruster and Rosie Sanderson. Johannes Wilson, one of my AECOM colleagues alongside Rosie, is from New Zealand. I can honestly say that everyone had a unique talent that came to light during the program, from Sneha’s ability to befriend everyone in the communities and make them feel comfortable, to Rosie’s unique insight into the area having previously worked for Engineers without Borders in Chennai. We had strategic consultants, engineers, and landscape architect. It was refreshing to hear all the different points of view and to learn from each another. We were all there for the right reasons and had so much to learn from each other.
IL: What images of India did you come away with, what were your personal experiences?
BD: Colour, noise and spices! Everywhere you go, India surrounds you with activity, be it the noise of the horns on the street, the brightly coloured saris everywhere, or the smells of so many different spices mingling in the air, which themselves act as a welcome respite from the pollution, rubbish and dust. At first it all hits you and feels overwhelming, but as you adjust you see more of what is the same and less of what is different.
For example, we made tea one evening, and as the ladies in the community laid out a mat for us to sit on, I cuddled one of their babies. Asking the few questions of Kannada I have picked up along the way, we drank tea and laughed with them, recognising a common joke made about wanting us to adopt their children. They have come to Bangalore to make a better life for their families, and it’s a wonderfully humbling experience to sit and share tea and try to begin to understand the daily pressures they face.
To volunteer or find out more about social change programmes in environmental sustainability sector, visit www.pollinateenergy.org

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