A decisive year for REEEP: an interview

21-02-2013, Vienna, Austria

Martin Hiller reflects on his first 14 months as Director General of REEEP, the organisation's achievements and the vision for the future.

You’ve been at the helm of REEEP for more than a year now. What do you see as the major accomplishments in 2012?

In short, we developed a new strategy and began to execute it.  A year ago we convened the first strategy workshop and began to hold in-depth consultations with funders, partners, and Friends of REEEP. We looked in depth at the assets that REEEP had developed, at the capacities and at the needs in our field. From this, we developed a new strategic approach and got the strategy approved by the Governing Board in June, just before REEEP celebrated its tenth anniversary with a speed-brokering side event at Rio +20.

Since then, we have put a Management Team in place and developed our business plan. And we implemented right away: we launched the ninth REEEP call for proposals which drew a record number of submissions; we used a greater thematic focus than in any earlier call.   Over the course of the year, REEEP became better known as a leading voice for Open Data, for instance through a workshop for knowledge brokers such as the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and others, that we co-hosted with NREL and CDKN in November in Washington, DC.

What is particularly different about the new strategy?

REEEP’s broad mission of accelerating renewable energy and energy efficiency in developing countries is unchanged. What is new is our clear focus on the business growth curve, i.e. on how to help clean energy business models scale up. The scale up potential can be in policy frameworks but it can also mean finding the right entrepreneurs and combining them with smart investors. We’ve now got a clear definition of REEEP’s offering, which gives us the basis for engaging afresh with governments, companies, and foundations.

What is that key offering?

We offer three types of services: first, with our Project Call Facility, we can identify successful business models and derive an understanding of critical success factors – for investors and for policy-makers. The beauty here lies in the fact that at our level of funding - up to 150,000 Euro - we can select projects precisely and understand quite well what our specific component does in a market. The Project Call Facility is therefore a tool to investigate specific uses of energy and understand their relevant markets in some detail.

Second, we bring private investment to energy access, by cooperating with partners to attract private funding for clean energy projects in developing countries. This is an essential component for changing track towards clean energy, as well as for bringing access to modern energy services to the 1.3 billion ‘energy poor’. It is a new field for REEEP and we have found a strong partner with whom we are developing the detailed offer.

Third, we use our IT knowledge as a market accelerator.  This starts with our operating www.reegle.info, the world’s most-visited clean energy information portal with 220,000 visitors per month. But beyond that, we’re at the cutting edge in understanding that opening up and linking data can directly accelerate the clean energy market. We also provide solutions for indexing and cross linking the welter of online information that is currently isolated in closed, non-searchable silos.

How do you rate the ninth project call?

Clearly it was a tremendous success. Eva Oberender and her team pulled out all the stops to make it happen in less than six months. It also signals a real shift for us, taking a more programmatic approach and systematically looking for business models that advance clean energy. We’re not just looking at the 28 projects (and more, as additional funders are joining in) - we’re looking at how they all fit together. Under that broad roof, we’ve also highlighted three important new themes, the nexus between energy and food, energy and water, and the provision of energy data.

Finding ways to harmonise these urgent needs is critical, and we’ve got a range of projects that do just that. For example we’re enabling the financing of solar-powered cooling facilities in Indonesian fishing ports. This reduces waste and makes livelihoods more profitable.  Another project looks at expanding the Kenyan supply chain for the Sunflower Solar Pump, a simple renewable-powered irrigation device that has the potential to displace millions of diesel pumps globally.

You’ve underlined the importance of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), and linked this with opening up data.  Why?

The new REEEP strategy centres around scaling up clean energy business models. SMEs tend to be both a source and a great proving ground for these promising new ideas. Beyond that, it is small entrepreneurs who comprise the “final step” in distributing clean energy solutions such as solar-powered LED lanterns and improved cookstoves. So they quite literally create access to energy. In addition, SMEs create employment opportunities locally, and ensure that benefits are shared further down the social scale.

All businesses need access to information about their target group, the size of the market, and other data. Often this data is already gathered by government sources, so it should be in the public domain already - but too often it is still hidden behind some unnecessary and unproductive secrecy. Open up such data - which means making it available for re-use free of charge, in machine readable formats - can unleash a whole new wave of entrepreneurs and innovations.

Many developing countries around the globe are starting to see the advantage of Open Data. A great example of this trend in action is Kenya, where the government decision to open data has unleashed a flood of activity. For example, an app that overlays GPS technology onto weather and land use data is helping farmers to decide which type of crops are best to grow in their area. This is a prime example of data becoming useful knowledge.

REEEP just got funding to expand the scope of its reegle Tagging API. What is that all about?

The reegle Tagging API is a tool that will automatically scan electronic resources and tag them according to the terms that appear in the documents. This sophisticated model is based on the reegle glossary and thesaurus of clean energy and climate change related terms.  The fact that it’s automated ensures that everything is tagged consistently, which is another factor in making databases around the world searchable and comparable. We’ve recently got GIZ funding to expand the thesaurus to include adaptation terms in more detail, and many other large institutions such as the World Bank are showing interest in the tagging API.

Looking ahead, what do you think the biggest challenge is?

The biggest challenge is to match sufficient energy access for up to one billion people with the need for sustainable production. All this while, of course, we need to get away from carbon emissions as rapidly as possible. REEEP wants to and needs to contribute to those solutions, so making our strategy operational should also be measured against the broad global developments. The world is in a very decisive situation. What we all manage to achieve in the next few years will decide between a prosperous and a catastrophic 21st century.

Related news items

REEEP awards 3.95 million Euros to 28 clean energy projects in 19 countries

Martin Hiller at WFES: opening and cross-linking data is essential to clean energy transformation

GIZ funding to expand scope of reegle.info thesaurus