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A new breed of entrepreneurs: Pollinate Energy applies commercial strategies to resolve India’s energy poverty

From left, Emma Colenbrander with Pollinate Energy customersFrom left, Emma Colenbrander with Pollinate Energy customers

“This is a business, not a charity” – a phrase most of us, for one reason or another, have heard numerous times. Like the difference between good and evil, the former is driven by internal interests to make money, while the latter is driven by the needs of others to raise money. Their paths can never cross. Or can they? We are seeing increasing rhetoric around social entrepreneurship, in fact, some say the social enterprise is the new black in business. And by definition, it’s where business does indeed meet charity – at least, to some degree. 

A social enterprise is an organisation that applies commercial strategies to maximise improvements in human and environmental well-being—this may include maximising social impact alongside profits. (Wikipedia)

‘The core problem is that these technologies aren’t getting to the people’

Dynamic Business speaks to Emma Colenbrander, one of six co-Founders of the Australian-Indian based start-up, Pollinate Energy. This business has been successfully applying commercial strategies to improve the well-being of families gripped by energy poverty across India since 2012.

The idea for Pollinate spawned when the six diversely skilled Australians travelled to Bangalore to educate children. Typical of life in the slums, they observed that many of their pupils were returning home each night to the dangers of kerosene lit tarpaulin tents. And with their varying backgrounds in energy economics, government, law, international development, engineering and construction – they felt equipped to do something about it.

Emma said “Pollinate Energy came about from identifying a massive need. There are 1.3 billion people who live in the world without access to electricity.

“At the same time, there are lots of high quality and affordable energy solutions on the market – the core problem is that these technologies aren’t getting to the people who need them most. We started Pollinate Energy to plug the gap.”

Apart from the obvious fire hazards associated with the use of naked flames, Emma says kerosene also emits toxic fumes that can cause respiratory illnesses. Other than its availability, the fuel has no redeeming qualities:

“Kerosene is expensive, costing around 8% of a customer’s annual income. It produces a very weak light, so kids can’t do their homework when the sun goes down, and it also emits black carbon which is 800 times more harmful to the environment than CO2,” Emma said.

‘The hallmarks of a successful and profitable commercial product’

The core problem is that these technologies aren’t getting to the people.

With a clearly defined objective to bring technology to people, the Pollinate team set to work on the ‘how.’ With customers earning an average of $1.52 per day by following work opportunities as they become available, the team knew their parameters. The solution needed to be both affordable and portable, and that solution was found in a simple solar powered lantern costing $37.

“This is a big investment for slum dwellers, but when you realise that kerosene costs around $2 a week, you quickly see the financial benefits of such an investment – the product pays itself off in less than 5 months,” said Emma.

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The hallmarks of a successful and profitable commercial product: it solves a problem, is cost-effective, and has mass appeal:

“Once our Pollinator makes his or her first sale, it’s easy for others in the community to see the benefit of the product, and trust in the Pollinate brand builds quickly.”

‘We are highly cost effective, achieving large-scale impact with small-scale investment’

But the path of the social enterprise diverges from the typical commercial enterprise when it comes to the generation of mass appeal. It’s a far more focussed affair – not driven by social trends, convenience, or even consumer indulgence; but by real and genuine improvements to the well-being of people or their environment.

Four years on and still growing – Pollinate is testament to the fact that this model, centred around the need to maximise social impact alongside profits, really works:

“I think Pollinate Energy has been so successful because it’s a simple, effective solution to what is a very big problem. We are highly cost effective, achieving large-scale impact with small-scale investment.”

Two years after launch, Pollinate expanded into Hyderabad in the state of Telangana. Eight months ago, they set up operations in Kolkata. No longer a small team working “crazy hours” along side full time jobs in Melbourne, Pollinate now operates a team of 30 Pollinators from a local base who have so far reached more than 13,000 families. In August last year, the business reached a new milestone after selling their 10,000th solar light.

Emma said “expansion of our solution is our team’s number one priority. We aim to expand into 20 cities and 2 countries by 2020, reaching over 1.65 million people.

“We have additional products in the pipeline to address a range of needs and complement our existing product offering.”

‘Bringing solar lighting to 165,000 more people per year’

Unsurprisingly, none of this goes unnoticed. In the next few days, Emma will be travelling to London to receive mentorship and training at Oxford University after being selected as the Australian representative for the global finals of Chivas Regal’s, ‘The Venture.’ After a week of training, Emma will have the opportunity to pitch for a share of $1m to help fund Pollinate’s ambitions.

Emma Colenbrander

Emma Colenbrander

“The Venture funding would allow us to scale our social enterprise into 5 more cities. That means we’ll be bringing solar lighting to 165,000 more people per year who would otherwise live in energy poverty. It will also mean we’ll generate enough revenue to break even financially, preparing us to expand across India and other countries globally.”

As a leader of a successful social enterprise, Emma is a staunch advocate for the model. Recognising that lack of knowledge and ‘know-how’ is often a challenge for any type of entrepreneur, Emma delivers the following message for other social entrepreneurs: “you’ll be surprised at how much people want to help, especially if you’re pursuing a social cause.”

So next time someone says “this is a business, not a charity,” you might spare a thought for the idea that nowadays, this distinction is not necessarily that cut and dry.