Alexie Seller, co-founder of Pollinate Group, is using renewable energy and entrepreneurialism to bring clean energy to one million people in the slums of India by 2020.
Embarking on a working holiday overseas is a centuries-old rite of passage for young adults who have the means and wherewithal. Most return home to pursue a pre-planned vocation — a little wiser about the world. Some people, such as Alexie Seller, don’t settle.
Seller says she was possibly rebelling against her parents, who both worked in corporate law, when she headed to the Dominican Republic on a volunteer teaching mission after completing high school.
“While I excelled at school, I didn’t want to follow them into law,” she recalls. “My upbringing was privileged and maybe I feel guilty about not using it for the maximum possible benefit for others, so I had to find out how to create value somewhere.”
Seller quickly discovered through “pretty frustrating” short-term volunteer cycles and aid programs — including teaching refugees on Christmas Island — that changing lives is very difficult. She wanted to lift communities out of poverty, not just occupy their days.
A chance to be inspired
Pollinate Group has launched its Executive Leadership Program. The idea is for executives to experience a collaborative exchange with an Indian social business that serves people living on less than $1 a day.
“This is not your typical leadership training experience,” says Seller. “We see leaders from private industry, government, non-profits and social businesses tackle the world’s problems together, because one organisation alone cannot solve issues like energy access or gender equality for billions of people.”
The event was held in Bangalore 6–10 May. Participants included Sahil Khanna, partnerships business leader Asia at GreenLight Planet; Timothy Kendall, economic counsellor for the Australian High Commission, and Harkida Sha, CEO of Kinara Capital.
Engineering energy solutions
During a humanitarian development mission in India, Seller met a woman her own age, mid-20s, raising four children in a tent beside the road. Like many impoverished people in the region, the family’s only source of heat and light was a kerosene burner. The technology was readily available, but expensive to maintain and hazardous to the family’s health.
“She was so committed to bringing her family forward and making sure they had the best opportunities,” recalls Seller, noting more than 300 million Indians don’t have access to electricity.
“I thought, ‘I actually have the skills to help. If it doesn’t happen now, when will it?’ Originally, I’d considered working as an engineer in the energy sector for a decade then starting something in development, but it happened a lot faster.”
In 2012, Seller and five other young Australians launched Pollinate Energy, bringing skills in renewable energy and social entrepreneurialism to distribute affordable energy products to Indians living in slums.
Pollinate sources products such as solar-charged lights, biofuel stoves and water filters — and trains local women as sales agents, known as “pollinators”, to educate customers about cleaner energy products. The products are offered on short-term payment plans, which according to Pollinate Group, allows families to save around 15 per cent of their income.
The Pollinate model proved successful, winning a United Nations Momentum for Change Award in 2013. Last October, Seller won the 2018 Advance Social Impact Award, a federal government-supported program to recognise Australian change makers with global impact. The organisation has already helped more than 500 female pollinators gain business skills, networking confidence and, most importantly, financial independence. “The pollinators’ pay structure is a living salary, plus bonuses, and we’re always looking at ways to help them move up the chain,” says Seller, adding that Pollinate Group is on target to engage 1000 women agents and reach one million customers by 2020.
“Bonuses are interesting motivators. Recently our team leader in Bangalore decided to award gold coins instead of 3000 rupees cash, which surprised me. But they were right — although a gold coin can be bought for less, it motivated more pollinators because gold is incredibly valuable in India and is seen as a way to hold onto future prosperity. The team given gold coins was already high-performing, and then it achieved 60 per cent sales growth.”
Streamlining the supply chain
In May 2018, Pollinate Group expanded its international operations through a merger with a similar social enterprise called Empower Generation. Launched in 2011, Empower Generation operated a rural distribution network of 20 women-led businesses and more than 250 women sales agents selling clean energy products in Nepal. Pollinate adopted the US-based organisation’s women’s empowerment approach for India. Operations in both countries benefit from greater buying power and streamlined processes across the supply chain.
“Although we’d pivoted a few years to especially focus on women coming into the organisation, I still felt we didn’t have a core skillset around training and development,” says Seller. “We needed people who knew what they were doing, which we gained through the merger process. It was probably a bit unconventional. In the commercial sector, if you don’t have a business line you acquire — that’s understood. But in the social, charitable sector, it’s not so common.”
Pollinate Energy and Empower Generation have now combined to form Pollinate Group, reporting to a global board in Australia, with subsidiary boards in India and the US, respectively.
“The governance and legislation for Australian organisations is very straightforward,” says Seller. “You have to intentionally do something wrong to get caught up, whereas in India you can accidentally do things wrong all the time. It’s so difficult to figure out what’s relevant, what you have to comply with. So our Indian board has historically played a much stronger role in helping us navigate compliance and governance issues.”
In January 2018, the board in India mandated a restructure of the company to address issues with meeting state-by-state compliances.
This meant some people were re-employed on new contracts, which slowed down sales for a while.
Although Seller found the process frustratingly long, she acknowledges the changes to operations helped set up a cleaner merger with Empower Generation and better prospects for growth. “A key issue was around foreign direct investment into India,” she notes. “Our Australian charity owns the Indian subsidiary, but we learned that a company with any foreign shareholders, let alone the 99.99 per cent, can’t do retail sales.”
In every state, Pollinate had to register itself as a foreign company and then one of the local pollinators as a local company. However, if that pollinator left, the locally registered company had to be wound down and the process started again. To maintain operations in each state, Pollinate set up a master franchisee limited-liability partnership, employing all the pollinators. This was a big change from the previous individual entrepreneurship model, so new reward mechanisms had to be established.
“Some of our pollinators are very high-performing; they’re selling $5000 every month in product, not just $100 here and there in product sales,” says Seller.
“So we felt it was more appropriate to shift them to an employment structure that gives them more reliable salaries, leave benefits, medical insurance and education loans for their kids. We worked hard in the restructure to make sure we’d prevent any economic shock for our pollinators, which further empowers them and their families.”
Cloud software drives social evolution
Following the merger, Pollinate adopted a mobile business management platform integrating Salesforce and other tools. The platform uses a device’s GPS feature to track each pollinator’s product inventory, customers and transactions — and supports management of wages, transport allowance and bonuses.
Arming each Pollinator with modern business acumen and mobile tools has some interesting run-on effects.
“In Nepal, the focus has always been very much on bringing women in who didn’t have much opportunity and lifting them to a high level with the right training and resources,” explains Seller.
“Six of them built high profiles so well, they were nominated to run for government. One, Chaya, was elected deputy mayor of a district in far-west Nepal and then another became a district board member,” says Seller.
“As Chaya told us, ‘I used to be known as Rajah’s wife, now he’s known as my husband!’ That shows the power of the model. It’s a genuine commitment to bringing people up to the leadership level. I’m excited we’re building a team so open to change and evolution.”
Alexie seller on governance
Originally, our board was just the co-founder team, allocated between the Australian and Indian boards for compliance. Three years in, we recognised we needed an independent board, with a formal board structure. You need outside experience and perspective.
It’s not like you do it for free and therefore aren’t accountable. We respect our directors for the skills they bring. It’s also very important we know the directors are committed and will test my assumptions.
One director is a personal mentor I talk with every two weeks. She helps me problem-solve at a personal level and is conscious of not letting that spread to the rest of the board unless it’s a risk point they need to assess.
It’s great for non-profit leaders to have people they trust and can work with regularly, rather than just turning up to board meetings every three months and having to report on everything they have been out of contact on.
Our directors are very good at narrowing down the key things they’d like to see and setting clear timeliness. That means we’re not forever deliberating — we have to have the right information and make decisions by certain points.
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