Automation in the Pursuit of Clean Energy

Photo by Pollinate Group

Automation isn’t restricted to Bezos and his fleet of warehouses. We can use it for something as simple as turning a light on after sunset.

This article shows how we’re using automative technology to help India and Nepal’s poorest families access affordable solar lights. We’ve partnered with Pollinate Group in their fight to get renewable energy products into the hands of those most in need.

The renewable energy market in India faces a problem of access and technology is the ticket out.

The Problem of Energy Access

Bear with me, the following section may seem a little dramatic.

Picture this.

You live in a tent the size of your dining table. The walls are made from blue plastic tarpaulin and bamboo frames. This tent is your home, and you live here with your partner and three young kids¹ .

Today you went to the market to buy Kerosene, which makes up 10% of your income².

Why?

Because when the sun sets your home is in darkness. You burn kerosene to light your home, to cook dinner, to clean dishes. You burn kerosene so your children can do their homework and have a brighter future than yours.

You use kerosene, an aggressively toxic pollutant, even though indoor air pollution is one of the leading causes of disease and premature death in India³ .

This is the reality for 51 million families living in urban India and Nepal⁴. That’s 20 billion litres of kerosene², 1.7 million pollution related deaths⁵, and 50 million tonnes of CO2 every year in India and Nepal alone⁶.

Photo by Mystical Mumbai on Unsplash

Kerosene is currently the answer, but it does not have to be. Renewables provide cheaper, healthier, and more sustainable household energy alternatives, but they remain just out of reach.

Introducing Automation

For 11 months six software engineers* have been working on a solution that helps urban Indian and Nepalese families save money, reduce health risks, and reduce CO2 emissions while simultaneously increasing their overall access to energy.

We have built a Point-of-Sale mobile application that provides India and Nepal’s poorest families with access to renewable household products.

SolarMate: a Point-of-Sale mobile application

If you rolled your eyes at that last sentence I don’t blame you.

It may seem delusional to think that a mobile app can help families that live on less than $5 a day. The reality is that ever-improving levels of global smartphone access means mobile technology is an increasingly egalitarian remedy to the world’s most common problems, with Pollinate Group’s 2020 impact report revealing that 42% of their sales agents currently have access to a smartphone³. Increased smartphone uptake is being actively addressed by other non-profits, with geographical separations caused by COVID-19 emphasising the need to increase the digital literacy of sales agents all across the world⁷.

We are not the first to bring phone apps into communities serviced by non-profits like Pollinate Group. Technology solutions are an increasingly viable answer, a prime example being Econome in Kenya who are currently focussed on the shift to a digital business model⁸.

*Kristina Mahony, Robert Robinson, William Lawless, Jacqueline Lee, Christiandel Rabe, Jimmy Tracey.

Last Mile Distributors and the Problem of Scale

The uptake of SolarMate rests on the existence of Last Mile Distributors (LMDs); groups that sell solar lights and other products to the world’s most neglected communities.

Our app is the bridge between these distributors and their customers.

200 Last Mile Distributors in the form of the Global Distributors Collective⁹ are working all over the world to break the energy poverty barrier. These distributors have taken amazing strides to sell their household products, but kerosene remains the main source of energy for millions globally, as families are still unaware that cheaper and healthier options exist.

These distributors cannot inherently scale. The management systems they use and their operational structure are heavily dependent on manual effort. Improving these problems requires employees to have a minimum level of technical experience. This is limited by the demographic constraints of a typical employee; an individual with poor literacy levels and limited technology skills.

SolarMate enables Last Mile Distributors to automate their distribution pipelines and management systems. This automation will help them scale the access of renewable energy products, phasing out kerosene.

The Last Mile Distribution: State of the sector report estimates that LMDs are currently only serving 12% of an approximate 1 billion people who rely on kerosene to survive¹⁰. Our app can help them grow their network and reach the remaining 88% of their customer base .

Using the App at Pollinate Group

The potential impact of this automation is huge.

To understand how massive this problem really is we started working with Pollinate Group, an Indian and Nepalese Last Mile Distributor.

To understand how Pollinate is using our app we need to introduce one of their sales agents.

Meet Pritha.

Pritha is a sales agent known as a Suryamukhi who works with Pollinate Group in Lucknow. Pritha was trained by Pollinate to sell their household product range on an instalment basis to a community near her home.

This week Pritha sold a few solar lights and collected some loan repayments. She had to remember the details of each transaction all week before reporting her sale information to a Pollinate field representative.

Three key players: Field Reps, Sales Agents (Suryamukhis), and Customers

After meeting Pritha, the Pollinate rep visited 4 other Suryamukhis before manually entering the data into the CRM tool Salesforce back at head office.

Being a field rep requires a level of technical expertise that is not easily scalable. Field reps can only manage 5 Suryamukhis as they need to physically visit slum communities to collect sales data.

Field reps can only collect data from a limited number of Suryamukhis

This is the bottleneck.

Being forced to manually collect sales data has hindered Pollinate’s ability to scale and train more Suryamukhis. This effort is exacerbated by data inaccuracies that stem from manual processes and the semi-literate nature of Suryamukhis like Pritha. Even though this is a tedious and error prone process, the data collected is essential as it ensures consistent servicing of product warranties and upholds the high degree of trust and financial stability required by Pollinate to feasibly operate.

That’s where we come in.

Pritha now uses SolarMate — our universal Point-of-Sale mobile application that automates sales tracking directly into Salesforce. SolarMate is specifically designed for semi-literate users with limited technology skills. Instead of remembering a week’s worth of sale information, every transaction or stock request Pritha makes can be directly recorded from the point-of-sale into Salesforce.

SolarMate automates the data collection process by seamlessly integrating Suryamukhis with Salesforce

Automating the data capture process removes the bottleneck by minimising data collection errors while maximising data collection frequency.

The app’s intuitive UI lowers the technical barrier to entry of Salesforce. This means data collection can be completed by Suryamukhis rather than a field rep. This enables Pollinate to scale the number of Suryamukhis they manage AND the number of customers each Suryamukhi can support.

App Features and Uptake

As of October 2021 we are testing our app with an initial group of 20 Suryamukhis across India and Nepal. Hopefully the next time you hear from us we will have grown the app across Pollinate’s entire Suryamukhi network.

Using SolarMate to make a sale on an instalment basis to a new customer

The latest features and integration points being used in India and Nepal can be seen in the image below. Leveraging AWS assets and building a custom Salesforce integration service layer has allowed us to build an easy-to-use app that meets Pollinate’s functional criteria.

Features currently offered by SolarMate

Rollout Plan

We have enormous demand from Pollinate. Their latest impact report highlights SolarMate as critical in achieving their expansion goals for 2021 and beyond³. The COVID-19 crisis has accelerated the need to move to more digital methods of distribution and we are currently working on delivering the features required to roll the app out across the current network of 700 Suryamukhis. In 5 years we aim to reach the CEOs goal of having 10,000 daily users.

The impact does not stop with Pollinate.

This same bottleneck is seen by Last Mile Distributors everywhere as they attempt to scale. We plan on transforming our app into a universal white label product and scaling it to the other 200 members of the Global Distributors Collective.

Since 2012 Pollinate Group has reached just over half a million people and saved 90,000 tonnes of CO2. After deploying our app, in just a single year we aim to reduce CO2 emissions by 300,000 tonnes. In 5 years, Pollinate believes the app will potentially enable them to reach 15 million people and save up to 3 million tonnes of CO2.

Projections over the next 5 years

We’re incredibly excited to see how far this app can go. If you like anything you’ve read and want to help out feel free to write us a message. We’re always looking to meet new software developers, humanitarian engineers, designers, or anyone else with an interest in using technology to solve problems.

More about Pollinate Group

Pollinate Group is a fantastic organisation and we are incredibly grateful to be working with them. They empower women as leaders of change to distribute products that improve health, save time and save money for the world’s most neglected communities. To learn more about what they do you can checkout out their website here.

Calculations

We predominantly sourced data from Pollinate Group’s reports or publications by the World Bank, OECD, and Global Distributors Collective. Information on India’s urban community population is notoriously difficult to calculate due to ever-changing migration patterns and limited data collection processes. Whenever the data ran out we used our best estimates to calculate what we thought were accurate results.

Note

We’re not even remotely suggesting that the onus is on poorer communities to be solely responsible in reducing carbon emissions that were primarily kickstarted by OECD nations. We believe economies that haven’t grown as quickly as the US, UK, and others deserve every opportunity to industrialize and provide better lives for their populace. However, if this energy access can be reached via low-carbon-emitting resources rather than fossil fuels then this should be encouraged. The benefits to customers come from lower prices, increased reliability, and reduced health risks, with low-carbon emissions being a positive externality.

Sources

  1. https://www.statista.com/statistics/619587/average-slum-household-size-india/#:~:text=In%202011,%20the%20average%20slum,areas%20with%20poorly%20built%20households.
  2. https://theplaidzebra.com/gravitylight-to-replace-kerosene-company-proposes-a-new-alternative-to-where-electricity-isnt-an-option/
  3. https://pollinategroup.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Impact-Assessment-Report-2020_Final.pdf
  4. https://pollinategroup.org/poverty/
  5. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/dec/23/pollution-killed-nearly-17-million-people-in-india-in-2019-study#:~:text=Pollution%20accounted%20for%20nearly%201.7,the%20country's%20toxic%20urban%20air.
  6. https://www.icbe.com/carbondatabase/volumeconverter.asp
  7. https://infohub.practicalaction.org/bitstream/handle/11283/622819/ECAP%20GDC%20%282021%29%20-%20Digital%20transformation%20for%20last%20mile%20distribution.pdf?sequence=7&isAllowed=y
  8. https://www.econome.africa/
  9. https://globaldistributorscollective.org/
  10. https://infohub.practicalaction.org/bitstream/handle/11283/622044/GDC_web%20PDF_updated.pdf?sequence=8

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