Pollinate Energy, a social enterprise based in Australia and India, is doing some exciting work around sustainable energy solutions in India. Asia Options caught up with Clare Condon, who took part in the Pollinate Energy Young Professionals Program.
Clare, tell us about the Pollinate Energy Young Professionals Program you took part in Hyderabad.
I recently participated in the Pollinate Energy Young Professionals Program (YPP) program in April/May 2015. For two weeks, I lived and worked with a group of ten young professionals at Pollinate Energy’s headquarters in Hyderabad. The program is run twice a year and is a great opportunity to work with a passionate team in sustainable development and sustainable energy.
It was great to be part of the first YPP held outside of Bangalore. Now is an exciting time to be involved in the social enterprise as it aims, by 2020, to expand into every Indian city that has a population of over one million.
It was my second time to India – after previously having visited West Bengal and Rajasthan – and it was interesting to visit the south of India. I was struck by how diverse Hyderabad is; with many different religions and a very interesting history.
What first attracted you to apply for the program?
I heard about the Pollinate Energy YPP through a friend and I thought this program was pretty much perfect for me as it combined practical experience, my interest in volunteering and my professional experience in energy policy.
For the past two years, I have been working in the Commonwealth Government primarily on electricity policy and have been exposed to really interesting conversations about energy every day, such as the reliability of energy supply, the role of renewables and the role of government in the energy market.
I was particularly interested to learn about India’s energy sector and see how people living in urban slums use power and what effect not having electricity has on their lives. I was also really interested in what demand there is for renewable energy and how much capacity urban slum communities have to buy products like solar lights.
The program provided the opportunity to learn how a social business actually operates, and gain a different perspective on the role organisations can play in improving access to energy.
I had been to India before as a volunteer in West Bengal and a traveller in Rajasthan. I really enjoyed my time then and was keen to go back. During that trip, I travelled to different communities and saw educational and community building programs in action.
Pollinate Energy is doing interesting work in India, what projects were you involved in, and what did a typical day involve during the Young Professionals Program?
So a typical day on the YPP ran from about 10am to 10pm. In the morning, we were based in the Hive, a nice and a pretty accurate name for the headquarters – always a busy place with people moving in and out. We had three main tasks: to work on a business problem, to train new Pollinate employees and to participate in professional development sessions.
For the business problem-solving task, each group was given a unique but real problem that Pollinate Energy faced in delivering its programs and increasing its reach and it was our task to come up with the solution. During the training sessions, we worked with new employees called ‘Pollinators’, who are the salespeople who go out and actually sell the solar lights in communities. This training involved running the new Pollinators through the business model, using the training handbook to talk about how best to engage with new communities and testing their knowledge of the solar light. In the professional development sessions, we were able to work on our own professional goals while gaining insight from Indian social business leaders. It was particularly great to learn more about the innovative business models that are springing up across India.
In the afternoons, we would go out to the communities and meet the people Pollinate Energy was set up for. Many people we met lived in communities that were either partially electrified (often with illegal connections) or un-electrified. Meeting high school students who had used the light to study with, which they claimed had made a big difference to their lives, was inspirational. As someone working in energy policy, I was able to see and experience first-hand the positive effects of solar lights – the effects that I had been telling my friends and family about back home – on health, educational and safety outcomes.
What was it like working and living in Hyderabad?
I think the best bit about working and living in Hyderabad was getting such a diverse experience. We worked in an office environment in the morning, then would head out into urban slums to talk and meet with people who actually need reliable, cheap and clean energy.
The diverse workdays allowed me to learn a lot from other people on the YPP. It was obvious that the participants’ different backgrounds, such as consulting, engineering and law, created a real depth of knowledge within the group. It was also great to have time to think about my broader career goals. In my day-to-day work, I don’t get much opportunity to reflect on my career and plan future goals, so I found that the dedicated professional development time was valuable.
From a practical perspective, it was very hot while we were there, with high 30 degrees most days and an occasional thunderstorm. The roads were crowded and the pollution, noise and infrastructure were very different to what I am used to in Australia. But the accommodation we stayed in at Pollinate Energy’s headquarters in Hyderabad was comfortable, and we had breakfast and dinner provided every day (including many delicious spicy meals and lots of biryani, which is the local specialty).
The fundraiser component of the program sounds like a good initiative to support Pollinate Energy’s programs. How did you go about your fundraising?
I must admit, I was pretty daunted at the start of the fundraising process: $3,500 seemed like a massive amount to raise. But once I got going, and once there was some momentum with friends, family and work colleagues, the donations really built up.
It made it easier that I was fundraising for something I really believed in. Pollinate Energy’s business model seems efficient and innovative as there is a real need for good lighting in the urban slum communities and the actual product is of very high quality (I ended up buying two for myself!).
With this in mind, I spoke to friends and family members directly and emailed work colleagues (I was very grateful for the support I received from my managers at work), and people were very receptive to the goals of Pollinate Energy. I also organised a social club event at work one Friday night and put on drinks and a raffle, which raised over $550. I also got my story out there in a newspaper article and in my Department’s online magazine.
Have you got any extra tips for our readers considering applying?
If you are interested in energy policy, development or social enterprises, I would say you should jump in and do this program. There is a lot to learn from these two weeks, even though it doesn’t sound like much time. If you are passionate about any of the issues that are at play in this space you will be rewarded for your work in fundraising, planning the trip and volunteering your time.
It is a great personal and professional development opportunity. I think you can also gain a lot of insight into your own strengths and career goals. You should definitely apply!
Find out more about opportunities with Pollinate Energy via Asia Options