india-slum
Honza Soukup

It's a little after sundown, and Arun Kumar is hawking his wares in the neighborhood for the first time. He's selling a light, just a small half-circle tied to a three-inch-wide solar panel. An older man tests it in his home, a tiny hut of tarp and tin built like the 30 others in this slum settlement on the far north side of Bangalore. A kerosene lamp flickers inside.

At a second home, Arun wields his 1,600-rupee ($29.48) gizmo for a woman seated with nine children. He points out the small cellphone charger in the light's rear. The woman turns inside, pulling out her phone to consult her husband.

She is one of millions in India and worldwide in a surreal contemporary fix: She owns a cell phone, but her home has no toilet or power line. The country's mobile users mushroomed in a few short years, reaching some 900 million. Cheap phones have not suddenly lifted owners out of poverty. But they have given them access to resources and economic ladders once unreachable.

Pollinate Energy's solar light.
Mark Bergen
Pollinate Energy's solar light.

Arun fails to sell any here, yet he will return tomorrow. The hyperactive 20-year-old is a salesman for Pollinate Energy, a social enterprise NGO that has, in the past five months, sold 400 private solar systems to slum dwellers in north Bangalore. Pollinate is one of a growing number of companies betting on "leapfrog" technology designed to help the urban poor in developing nations to skip right over fossil fuels for electricity.

On their first visit to a slum, the staff never make a sale, explains co-founder Monique Alfris. Residents are understandably skeptical of consumer goods in India. Though the panels pay for themselves in about six months, those making $3 to $4 a day are reluctant to put down the 400-rupee ($7.47) installment plan payments.