Luke Barbagallo’s journey to social enterprise
Luke Barbagallo from Pollinate Energy, a social enterprise that offers life-changing products to Indian communities, was speaking with a man in a Kolkata city slum about one of Pollinate’s solar lanterns. The man was doubtful of the quality of the solar lamp that Luke was showing him, even questioning its ability to work.
Out of the blue, a young woman approached them. She held the same lamp in question, which she had purchased from Pollinate Energy two years earlier, and took over the conversation, sharing how it had improved her life.
In a passionate attempt to prove its quality, she threw the lamp on the ground - hard. It bounced and remained unscathed.
An alternative to kerosene lamps, the solar lanterns that Pollinate Energy distributes through a network of ‘Pollinators’, ends the household reliance on toxic kerosene, which is also an expensive fuel for impoverished families. Furthermore, pollutants released from burning kerosene increase the risk of respiratory disease, which greatly affects women and children. Families that now have a solar lantern are safe from being burnt by an open flame, are not inhaling toxic fumes, and have sufficient illumination to work and study at night.
It was a moment of serendipity for Luke. When the survey ended, the man asked to buy the product.
“It validated why I was working for Pollinate Energy and why I wanted them to succeed and contribute to the business,” said Luke. “There was a beneficial outcome for the person, and she shared this independently.”
However, Luke never had plans to work for an international charity & social enterprise. Yet today, he is the Partnerships and Program manager at Pollinate Energy.
When he graduated from his entrepreneurship degree at RMIT, Luke was focused on building his B2B sales skills. He worked for an Italian food importer as a sales representative. His learning accelerated and he coined the experience as “baptism by fire”. However, Luke felt unfulfilled.
“I wanted to set a pathway towards turning up to work, and actually enjoying what I was doing and knowing that my output would contribute to a wider impact,” he said.
It was an uncomplicated goal, but not straightforward to achieve.
During his travels, Luke developed an interest in micro and grey market businesses that he interacted with in North Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe.. It motivated him to move away from the usual business models and to work on something that has a wider impact in his community.
He participated in the Future Makers Fellowship that is facilitated by the Centre for Sustainability Leadership, and used the experience to work on community engagement projects that continued to brew his passion for giving back, and led to him joining Creative Suburbs, an engagement and placemaking business.
When an opportunity at Pollinate Energy opened up towards the end of 2016, he leapt at it.
Started in 2012, Pollinate Energy is a social enterprise headquartered in Bangalore that aims to provide urban slum communities in India with life changing, quality products that meet their basic needs for clean water and electricity. Their distribution model recruits and trains local people from disadvantaged backgrounds as salespeople, called ‘Pollinators’, to sell their products based on interest free payment plans.
The company started with solar lamps to eliminate kerosene reliance, but have since expanded their range to include water filters, larger solar home systems, clean cookstoves, solar fans and mobile phones. These products help improve the health, quality of life and reduce the cost of living for the communities Pollinate works with
Recently, Pollinate Energy merged with Empower Generation - a US based social enterprise dedicated to empowering Nepali women in the development of their communities, and together, they aim to recruit, train and support over 1000 women and reach 4000 families per month by 2020.
Pollinate Energy also engages students and professionals through their Fellowship Program, which Luke oversees. For two to four weeks, Fellows conduct field work that ranges from in-depth product testing and community trials, demographic research in communities, and needs assessments that allow communities to request and suggest products they’d like Pollinate Energy to supply.
“I think students come back with a deeper understanding of themselves and the impact of social enterprises, but they also [develop] a deeper understanding of the broad spectrum of the human condition,” said Luke.
Encouraged by his experience, Luke is undertaking a Master of Disaster, Design and Development (MoDDD) to harness interdisciplinary thinking about working in disaster and development fields both locally and internationally.
To date, the enterprise has reached 131,200 people and saved them 4,102,600 litres of kerosene, 9,850,000 kg of carbon emissions and saved communities 217.5 million rupees. At this rate, Luke and his team are well on track to ‘Pollinate’ their sustainable solutions across India & Nepal.
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Luke Barbagallo completed the RMIT Bachelor of Business (Entrepreneurship)