UNSW Engineering alumna, Monique Alfris is a co-founder of Pollinate Energy, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to lighting up the lives of people living in India’s urban slums.

Currently, thousands of people living in slums on the edges of India’s major cities have no access to essential services such as electricity and clean water. Not-for-profit company Pollinate Energy, founded by UNSW Engineering alumna Monique Alfris, works hard to provide these communities affordable solar lights, having distributed almost 25,000 in slum communities to date.

It all started with studies at UNSW, where Monique says she was strongly encouraged to address global problems like those in India’s slums. “I wanted to be part of the solution to the problem of climate change, and was so drawn to the vision of the School of Photovoltaic and Solar Energy Engineering,” she says. “I had always wanted to work in the developing world - something that was strongly encouraged when I was at University.”

The story of Pollinate Energy

After graduating in 2005, Monique began working in a solar lighting firm in Asia, and in 2012 she had an idea that would help her to provide a better quality of service to customers, driven by a desire to bring life-changing products to those who need them most. “I was given the opportunity to try my (and my five co-founders’) ideas in a slum in India. It was there that Pollinate was born.”

Through their solar products, users have access to a sustainable, economical and reliable source of light. This means children can do their homework, the adults can cook safely, and businesses can stay open after sunset. Pollinate Energy’s products also help to tackle issues around safety and environment, as dwellings in these slums are traditionally rely on candles, fires and kerosene lamps, which are expensive, dangerous and polluting.

Customers pay for the lights upfront by taking a loan from Pollinate, which they pay back over several weeks. The light will long outlast the loan period, and drastically reduce the amount they would normally spend on kerosene. Today, Pollinate currently operates in five cities across India and has plans to expand into five more. The organisation has reached thousands of communities in need, with around 120,000 people in total benefiting, and has won several awards for the positive impact it has had on the lives of India’s urban poor.

Shaping the next generation of social entrepreneurs

As part of their sustainability mission, Monique’s business also employs local residents to sell and install the solar lamps, encouraging them to become small business owners. These workers, known as the ‘Pollinators’, come from disadvantaged backgrounds themselves, and will organise payment plans for customers, show them how to use the products, and collect repayments.

Pollinate also presents opportunities for students and fellow graduates, with the organisation now running unique fellowship programs to allow young people to spend a month working on strategic projects for the organisation. The funding and manpower that the volunteer program provides has helped Pollinate expand into five cities, and is seen as a crucial part of the business.

A number of UNSW students and alumni have taken part in these programs, which offer a deep dive into social entrepreneurship. Monique says the program can help volunteers “learn how to apply their studies to significantly change a person’s life.”

Nurturing networks and ideas

During a recent presentation during O-Week 2018, Monique gave an inspiring talk to newly enrolled UNSW students on the power of a university education and taking time to realise your potential. “The people you go to university with are the future leaders of our country. Don’t underestimate the power of the networks you will form at university,” she said. “It’s okay if you don’t know what you want to be when you grow up – explore things you are interested in and don’t be afraid to take a year out to try something different. A year is a short period of time in what will likely be a 40 or 50-year career.”

To fellow UNSW alumni and current students, Monique says the fellowships are more than a volunteering activity; it’s an opportunity to build one’s resume. “Experiences like our fellowship programs are important for creating future leaders because they show you that you will create the future world that we will live in, and how much of a positive difference your studies at UNSW can make to the world!”

Interested in applying for a graduate fellowship with Monique and Pollinate Energy? Visit the fellowships website for more information.

 

 

 Read about the experiences of some of past participants from UNSW Engineering:

 

“My experience with the Pollinate Energy fellowship has benefited me greatly. It has given me the confidence and knowledge to go forward in the future and have a positive impact on the world. It has left me feeling extremely motivated, and is still challenging me now to continuously relate what I’m learning in my degree to how I can use this knowledge to have a meaningful impact on the world.” -  Angela Begg

 

“What I experienced was nothing short of remarkable. The fellowship program was such a rewarding experience for the effort that we put in as a group. Seeing the results of some of the programs and witnessing the actual difference we made being there was outstanding. The work was hard, but experience from university projects during study really played a key role to the success of our team.” - Sean Findlay

 

“Overall, the experience was amazing. It was an eye-opening experience about how easy it is to become complacent with disadvantaged communities around you and accept this as way of life, when in reality you have the power and skill to make a difference. We were well looked after by our leaders, and it was really good to get to know likeminded people.” - Shuchi Gupta

 

“The program was a deeply moving experience. I was inspired by the people who have spent their life in slums; their strong sense of community and how highly they value family and friendship. It was special to walk through the slum communities at night and see the families that were benefiting from the solar lights and fans they had purchased from Pollinate. I also grew close to the other volunteers and I know they will be friends for life.” - Georgia McKenzie