In Conversation With > Pollinate Group: How a solar company pivoted to increase their impact on women
By Matt Lewis
In a Nutshell:
Pollinate Group is on a mission to help female entrepreneurs sell critical products that save time and money for low-income households. Following a merger in 2018, the company has been through an exciting period of growth, expanding their geographic reach and suite of products. We completed 452 phone interviews with Pollinate Group’s customers across India and Nepal to understand the impact that their products — including solar lights, sewing machines, and irons — were having on end-customers, local communities, and female entrepreneurs.
Given Pollinate Group’s shift away from a direct sales model and towards last mile distribution, they wanted to understand whether they are in fact reaching low-income communities and having their intended impact on female entrepreneurs. Through the Lean Data results, they were able to estimate their customers’ income levels: they found that of their customers in India, 68% (compared to the national average of 57%) live below $3.20/day. In addition to serving customers that are poorer than the national average, Pollinate Group found that a large percentage of their customers currently see them as the primary channel to access products that save time, money and improve health.
Action & Impact:
The Lean Data findings helped validate Pollinate Group’s new model and showed that they are in fact selling meaningful products to low-income customers. The organization will continue to work on serving these communities, and with 2019 sales being the highest they have ever been, they will continue to grow the entrepreneur programme and the suite of products they offer end-customers.
The following is a combination of interviews with:
● Sita Adhikari, Director of Impact
● Murli Padmanabhan, Director of Growth
● Ravi Kumar, Director of Operations
● Sujatha Ramani, CEO
Following your merger in 2018, it sounds like 2019 has been incredibly busy! What’s your last year looked like?
Pollinate Group’s current configuration is the result of a merger between Pollinate Energy and Empower Generation in 2018. To reflect our impact model following this, we refreshed our brand and shifted our internal culture, placing women at the centre of our impact.
Our new vision is a world where women are equipped to lead their communities out of poverty. Our refreshed mission is to empower women as leaders of change who distribute products that improve health, save time and save money for the world’s most neglected communities.
On top of distributing solar lights, we introduced new products such as hand operated sewing machines, irons, even solar televisions. Product diversity ensures the relevance of our services in neglected communities beyond solar lights. With these new products, we had record sales in 2019.
What a fantastic year, your new vision sounds fascinating; how have the trainings been going so far?
Last year, we exceeded the number of women we planned to train. One of the best performers is Mahalakshmi, who lives in a slum in Bangalore, India. She joined us in March and had initial sales of $80. By June she had sales of $175 and in July increased to $419.
Other women like Sabitri Silwal, an entrepreneur in Chitwan, Nepal, continue to grow their income:
“The role has given me confidence, I am a completely different person than I was before… I have grown as a person and in business. We receive training to build skills and make connections in Nepal and internationally too.”
Given this transition to focusing on using entrepreneurship to improve gender inequality and reduce poverty, what were your motivations for participating in a Lean Data project?
Pollinate Group is in a growth stage and we wanted to complete a deep dive into our customers: to validate our claims of impact through the products and services that we offer. Moreover it was critical for us to understand the customer perspective around our new initiative in India: to empower women in last mile distribution as opposed to a direct sales model.
Our impact on communities needed validation from an industry expert. Lean Data provided that overview which emphasised that we are truly working with needy communities. Historically we have collected data in person, and we were curious to see how data collected via mobile phone resonated with our customers.
Was there something specific you wanted to learn about your customers?
We firstly wanted to learn how satisfied our customers are. We were looking for an opportunity to collect authentic data that shows customer satisfaction that we could communicate to our internal and external audiences. The second major point was to see how our new women empowerment initiative has influenced customer purchasing habits as well as their behaviour in everyday life.
We also wanted to focus on a main challenge we were facing: branding ourselves to customers as we are distributing multiple companies’ products. Sometimes our customers can be confused whether Pollinate Group employees are agents of other companies, so it is critical to understand customers’ perspective towards us and how they recognize our organization beyond a product sales company.
Once you received your results, were there any insights that really jumped out at you?
The first very important insight was that customers are direct in what they tell you if you have the courage to ask! Secondly, the fact that our entrepreneur training programme is viewed as a positive impact on the local community is a very motivating factor outlining that our decision to move towards this channel was the correct one.
It was also insightful to know that a large percentage of the customers that we are serving currently see Pollinate Group as the primary channel to access products that save health, time and money. The lack of alternatives in such difficult to reach markets is very noticeable. The impact that Pollinate Group has created is also evident from the Lean Data findings with 73% of respondents reporting an improvement in quality of life.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
The collective effort between 60 Decibels and Pollinate Group enriched the report, which is very useful for us. The outcomes from the project are very insightful and will definitely enable us to focus on all those areas that need attention and carry forward the positive impact we are making in the lives of our customers. In the future, maybe we can look at the impact of Pollinate Group products in native villages* since we have observed that many products do go back to rural villages in India.
*The rural villages people have moved from when migrating to cities. Many will have family and friends remaining in the village while they move to a city.