Five Questions on Partnership with the Pollinate Group

Business Partnerships Platform Q&A with Alexie Seller, CEO, Pollinate Group

SDG 17 calls for a revitalisation of global partnerships. In India and Nepal, a social enterprise, Pollinate Group, is working in partnership to empower women to distribute solar energy products in informal settlements. Pollinate Group is partnering with Greenlight Planet and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) through the Business Partnerships Platform.

1.What is Pollinate Group’s business model?

Pollinate Group is a social enterprise with a mission to empower women as leaders of change to distribute products that improve health, save time and save money for the world’s most neglected communities. It was established in Bangalore in 2013, and later expanded to Hyderabad, Kolkata, Kanpur and Lucknow. Pollinate Group supports a network of local change agents to distribute solar lights and other sustainable technologies to households in India’s urban informal settlements.

The problem is a lack of access to basic products and services for families living on less than $US1.50 a day in India’s urban areas. Many homes are not connected to grid electricity or water supply, forcing people to go without, or to resort to unsafe products. Families rely on harmful kerosene for their lighting needs, they drink unclean water, and cook with dirty cookstoves.

2. You work largely with female entrepreneurs. What advantages are there in working specifically with women? 

In the communities we serve, women spend considerable time collecting fuel, preparing meals and grinding spices by hand, and cooking using energy inefficient methods. When a woman can share with another woman how a basic product like a solar light or cooker reduces her time burden, it can be a powerful catalyst for change.

Additionally, these women aspire to earn more money to help their family move ahead and are likely to re-invest revenues in their community. We know from models around the world that identifying women in-community entrepreneurs is an effective way to work with remote and rural communities. We just decided to apply this model to an urban slum environment.

3. You have established sales teams in Bangalore, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Kanpur and Lucknow. How have these experiences informed your approach to scale?

About four years ago Pollinate Group’s plan was to scale our model across metropolitan cities in India. After experimenting with this approach we realised it was costly and inefficient. Likewise, in a traditional approach to reach rural markets you would set up an office in a regional centre, then organise networks of sales agents to leverage that regional office to move into more remote districts. Similar to our metropolitan expansion plans, this would also take considerable resources.

Most customers we serve in cities come from rural areas, so we have always known products like solar lights were making their way back to rural villages. However, more recently we realised just how many products were organically moving to rural areas: up to 15 per cent were being sent back to families in rural India.

Our existing customers offered an opportunity for us to reach rural markets. The question was, could we collaborate with city customers to tap into their existing behaviours and enable quicker and more efficient flow of high impact products to rural areas?

4. Research suggests [paywall] companies achieve greater success in low-income markets when they see them as rich in the assets needed to build their business models. In this case, there seems to be an incredibly rich asset: the distribution network. How do you see this evolving?

Yes, the rural market was already capitalising on the products we offered in urban areas. Our customers were a step ahead of us, identifying the value of the products we offered and acting on the opportunity to send products from urban to rural areas via their family connections.

It’s early days for this new sales channel, so our plan is to understand more about the family-based connections across urban and rural India and test and analyse how different products can move and be serviced via these organic networks.

The ultimate vision of the women empowerment and rural market opportunity is to scale the approach throughout India, building a powerful network of connected women who can identify the needs of their communities, and deliver on those needs through entrepreneurship.

5. What value does partnership bring to your work?

The partnership (with DFAT and Greenlight Planet through the Business Partnerships Platform) has helped our team to invest time and resources into understanding our customer base. With DFAT’s encouragement we are planning to conduct a customer survey on the impact of energy poverty on women as household managers.

From the results we were able to leverage new information on what makes a difference in a woman’s life, as well as barriers to her personal success. For instance, by understanding more about the challenges women face in travelling alone, we’re able to adapt our training to visit communities rather than expecting women to travel to us.

Collaborating with entrepreneurs through our approach delivers a reliable, high quality supply of products and services, so these women can lead their communities out of poverty in both urban and rural areas.

The key is setting-up women as the drivers of our rural expansion. We remain open to learning and leveraging what works as we build this network and continue to reach the customers nobody else serves.

Find out how you can get involved:

The Business Partnerships Platform brings partners with complementary skills and experience together to find solutions to development challenges. In this partnership Greenlight Planet, a social enterprise, designs and supplies the solar energy products, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade contributes catalytic funding and development expertise and Pollinate Group identifies, trains and develops the change agents in urban and rural networks.

Learn more about Pollinate Group’s work under the Business Partnerships platform.

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