Changing lives in Indian slums

The New Colombo Plan Mobility Program offers 20 SPREE students the life-changing opportunity to work with social enterprise Pollinate Energy on their widely hailed fellowship program.

Pollinate Energy fellowship programBetween 2018 and 2021, up to 20 students from UNSW School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering (SPREE) will be given the opportunity to travel to India to help successful social enterprise Pollinate Energy continue to expand their humanitarian-focused business, courtesy of a $50,000 funding boost from the New Columbo Plan Mobility Program.

The New Colombo Plan (NCP) is an initiative of the Australian Government that aims to lift knowledge of the Indo-Pacific in Australia and strengthen people-to-people and institutional relationships, through study and work placements undertaken by Australian undergraduate students in the region. 

Dr Richard Corkish, a Senior Lecturer from SPREE, who collaborated with Pollinate on the successful application, was thrilled that SPREE would be able to offer this opportunity to students. “The Pollinate Student Fellowship Program is an exciting opportunity for our students, many of whom are interested in engaging with society in an active way. This is their chance to experience the thrill of being useful, learning and really making a difference out in the world,” he says.

Pollinate Energy was established in 2012 and is a social enterprise based in Australia and India. The organisation offers life-changing products to the millions of people living in poverty in India’s urban slums. Pollinate Energy was co-founded by SPREE alumna Monique Alfris and the School has been actively involved with the organisation since its beginnings having already supported 11 students to participate on their Student Fellowship Program.

“Our products include solar lights, mobile phones, fuel efficient stoves and water filters. What really differentiates us is that we recruit and train local people in Indian communities, we call them Pollinators, who are from disadvantaged backgrounds and need employment opportunities. They become the link in the chain between the communities and our sustainable technology,” says Luke Barbagallo, Pollinate Energy Partnerships and Programs Manager.

“We’ve currently got about 40 Pollinators selling our products across five cities. Our ultimate goal is to have each of these city locations breaking even and becoming sustainable, allowing us to expand. That’s exactly what UNSW students will be contributing to as part of our Fellowship Program, supported by the NCP.”

Students on the Fellowship Program receive a mission at the start of their assignment and work with the staff and Pollinators on the ground in the communities to test their theories and hypotheses. At the culmination of the four-week program they write a report and give a presentation of their findings.

“After every program there’s a real buzz around the Pollinate Energy offices and online because the work the students do is so valuable. Following the recent July Fellowship Program we immediately began exploring how we could implement the recommendations made by students. It’s great for us and so rewarding for the students to see their ideas and hard work make a difference so quickly,” says Barbagallo.

Pollinate Energy’s Fellowship Program not only offers an amazing experience for its participants, but can influence their future career choices too. Sam Johnson, who raised funds for his Fellowship experience by undertaking an overnight 40-kilometre hike using nothing but the light of a Sunking Pro2 (the solar light Pollinate Energy has become famous for) says the Program definitely helped clarify what he wants to do in the future.

“I was already interested in international development and humanitarian engineering but my experience with Pollinate Energy consolidated for me that working in the social enterprise space is something that suits me. Now I know it’s something I want to dedicate my career to,” he says.

Johnson, who studied Civil Engineering at UNSW and graduated last year says that the on-the-ground experience was invaluable in figuring this out. “I did my thesis on social enterprise, so I gained a lot of theoretical knowledge about the sector, but it was vastly different to getting out there and getting my hands dirty. I learned that things are much messier on the ground, less perfect than what it says in the brochures, but that’s all part of it.”

Barbagallo says the NCP is an incredible opportunity for Pollinate Energy and will enable them to scout up to three more new cities in 2018. “We’ve got three UNSW students coming with us in January and they’ll be going to Lucknow, to help with the ongoing stabilisation of our operation there, and Kanpur, a brand new city for us where students will be helping to solidify Pollinate Energy’s presence,” he says.

After every program there’s a real buzz around the Pollinate Energy offices and online because the work the students do is so valuable.

Luke Barbagallo, Partnerships and Programs Manager of Pollinate

Corkish is also highly complimentary of the NCP and the often-unquantifiable benefits it will spread throughout Australia and our neighbours in the South Pacific. “The NCP is immensely important in maintaining good relations and peace in our region. It’s too easy to be afraid and defensive about what we don’t know, so initiatives that encourage partnerships and shared endeavours will ultimately boost prosperity for us all,” he says.

“It’s often a life-changing experience for a young person to go into a shockingly different environment where there’s no access to social services and people are living in dirty conditions; often with little, if any, sanitation, running water and electricity. The Pollinate Energy Fellowship Program provides a structured experience where students can not only build relationships but almost immediately see the positive impact of their work.”

It was certainly that and more for Johnson. “India was exhilarating,” he says. “An amazing assault on the senses and the team at Pollinate Energy was so good to work with. What I really liked was how specific the tasks were. I worked on things that were suited to my skill set and think we delivered a really good report and assessment. It felt great to provide a service that they wouldn’t have been able to get otherwise and I would highly recommend the whole experience. It’s great that the NCP is offering more UNSW students exactly that.”

SPREE’s collaboration with Pollinate is just one of the projects that UNSW won successful funding for as part of the NCP. In total, close to 800 UNSW students will have the opportunity to visit the Indo-Pacific region in 2018 thanks to total funding of $2.5 million from the NCP Mobility Program.

More information

  • Apply for a place on the Pollinate Energy Student Fellowship Program
  • Apply for a place on the Pollinate Energy Professionals Fellowship Program – a highly specialised two week program for professionals interested in learning more about social enterprise and international development.
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