Creating global sustainable energy investment opportunities for everyone
Alex Jensen Speaks to Johnson Penn, CEO and Founder of EcoLinks a renewable energy project development, financing and asset management platform.
Cameroon-born Johnson cam to Korea in 2017 to study at Handong Global University. While living in Pohang he learnt Korean and began to build a plan for the future.
EcoLinks is aimed at creating a sustainable world where anyone can access clean and reliable energy. In a very convenient way, through EcoLinks, investors can choose the investment amount they want, search for a project that matches their profile and then invest through Paypal, Kakao pay or any of the other major payment services. So far he has developed three projects in Cameroon, two of which are already producing solar energy, and the third is almost fully invested.
EcoLinks mission is to bring clean energy to underprivileged societies and helping them emerge from poverty. They are already seeing really satisfying the end results.
We are looking to get into carbon emission reduction projects, because it’s much more urgent than any other thing right now. We really need to act, to cut down on carbon emissions and promote any form of carbon emission technology.
Today’s episode is brought to you by the Four Seasons Seoul. Stylish elegance in the very heart of the city.
A successful niche player in the cutthroat world of delivery apps
Alex Jenson 00:08
You’re listening to Koreabizcast with the KBLA. I’m your host, Alex Jensen, and it’s Tuesday, February 15. Now still very much in the midst of winter. This episode today might have you dreaming of the summer months to come as sunshine is going to be a key theme. But also, I’ve been thinking, especially on some of the highly polluted days we’ve had recently, how we really should be ushering in a cleaner energy future. And that’s also a big part of the discussion. And it might be especially fitting that Today’s episode is brought to you by the Four Seasons, not literally the Four Seasons powering clean energy, but the Four Seasons Hotel Seoul, stylish elegance in the very heart of the city.
Johnson Penn 01:00
Now then, our featured guest today is Johnson Penn, the CEO at EcoLinks, which is based in Gangnam Seoul. But his work takes a much further afield, and it’s taken me a few months, literally months to track you down and get time with you. You are one of the busiest men on the planet. Johnson, thank you so much. Thank you, Alex. It’s a real pleasure. Tell us first a bit about your journey to Korea and also learning Korean which I am particularly jealous of, because I know that you’re quite modest about it. But I saw a YouTube video which you also had time to record in which you were speaking very fluent Korean. Oh, very…I do my best. Because you would be most natural with French. Am I right in saying that, or at least pretty much as natural and French as English. I would say the second is more, more accurate. So I’m from the English speaking region of Cameroon. Most people think Cameroon is just French. But we actually have both languages in two different regions. But of course, I grew up, you know, speaking French outside speaking English at home. So I would say both are more or less, you know, come more or less natural to me. But with that language background, you kind of have dozens of countries to pick from where English or French would be their first language yet, you ended up in Korea. How did that happen? How did that happen? I would say it was pure coincidence. So this is me sitting at my office in the power company of Cameroon at 7pm. And I get a phone call, “Hey, Johnson, there is this opportunity for you to study maths, like to go through a master’s degree in electrical engineering in Korea, Are you interested?” And I was like, Okay, let me look into that. So at that moment, I was thinking of doing an MBA in Canada instead. But then this opportunity came my way. And I was like, okay, sometimes when life throws things at you, you just say yes, and you just go with it. So the next thing I know, four months later, I’m on a flight to Korea for my first time. And that was the beginning of a new adventure. And just give us a sense of when that was and how long it took you to become as fluent as you are in Korean. So that was back in 2017. I, when I got the phone call that was probably in February, and, you know, went through the application process. So the master’s degree at Handong University that’s down there in South Korea. And so I was on a flight to Korea on the seventh of August 2017. That’s the first time I came to Korea in my life. And I will say I started learning Korean right off the bat. I went through, of course, like normal integration process. And when I first came to Korea, I was like, Is it even possible to read those drawings? Who gets to speak the language? Right, but then I got introduced to this program called What’s the name? Talk to me in Korean. And it begins with very, you know, basic sentences, basic words, like, you know, how to say school in Korean how to say, I’m going to the market or, you know, very basic stuff. And then, you know, it’s really exciting that, you know, one month later, you realize that you could actually go outside and speak in on talk with Korean people, and they can understand you, right? So those kind of like, you know, this one of these aha moments, like, oh, I can actually learn this language, right? And I started putting in more effort into, you know, learning the language and trying to, you know, of course, have Korean friends and interact with them with my very, very basic and broken Korean. But as time went by over the past, I would say four and a half years, I you know, kept on improving steadily. Although I must admit, the point in time in which my Korean really got much better much faster was when I started running my own company. And I had no other choice but to use the language you know, in order to begin and run my company so that’s the point I’m which my Korean really got out so much better not perfect far from perfect, but still good enough to, you know, handle interactions with Korean business people or with the banks or know all the government agencies. No motivation, like necessity. But I am so impressed with that part of the story, I thought you were going to say, I don’t know, like you enrolled in a three month or six months language course at university, because that’s the kind of thing very few come here to work have time to do. But talk to me in Korean, a lot of that is a free course online, there’s an app that you can check out as well. So I would heartily recommend people check that out. They do have some paid services, but it’s really something you could dive straight into today, if you’re interested. Thanks for well, I guess. Yeah, I don’t mind mentioning great services. Maybe it’s a story we should cover in its own right at some point. Yeah. I’ve got no personal reason to promote talk to me in Korean, except that I’ve also used it not quite as successfully as you. But there is a time factor there as well. Like you have to have that motivation plus tied into it. Yeah, you know what, I used to listen to the podcast every night before I sleep. Right? So it was it was just a fun. I know, in the beginning, I was learning for fun, like, Oh, this is like, it’s really exciting, right? Get it getting to learn a new language. So before I say even like I just play this podcast, I learn a few words. And, and that was it. I think the best way to learn a language is to have fun doing it. It really kind of pains me when I see people, you know, going and sitting down long hours in classes, and no breaking the brains over long in your language. Like, that’s not the way to learn a new language. It should be fun, like, Great advice. Again, now you got Koreabizcast. So listen to every night, if you so desire. Let’s take a big leap with this conversation into your career progression. So you’ve been working, you said in the field of power or energy in Cameroon? Yeah, but you’re now well known for your work in the clean energy sector. Tell us a general timeline of how you took that step. Um, so where do I start from, I would start from my desire to, you know, engage in the energy field to begin with, that was way back when I was still a high school student in Cameroon. So right, you know, right as, as far as when I was still a student, by then I already knew that, you know, for country to get the ball up. One of the most basic, you know, motherboards fundamental resources they need is energy resources without energy resources, that no, no country in the world could go anywhere. Right. So back then I already had this interest in energy, not necessary, renewable energy. But as time went by, as I went through my training at the National University, Polytechnic University, I, you know, got more interest, I do have more interest for renewables in particular. And so when I graduated from this engineering school, I, well, I first of all, worked for Huawei, the Chinese telecom company, which probably no, just a year over the, then I realized, no, that’s not my thing. I am definitely an electrical guy, you know, so I got this opportunity to work with the power company of Cameroon, and I worked there for five or six years, during which I was mainly first of all in charge of, you know, for the the commercial services. No, that’s distributing energy to, to the local population, and detecting frauds and you know, trying to improve on the network efficiency. And then I wanted to do something even more interesting. So I decided to get into project management. More precisely, because I felt back then that, you know, managing a project is kind of like, managing a small company with, you know, with a very specific start, they’re going to end date, so I viewed a project as a company, in my nature. And so I, you know, I fought literally, no, of course, not literally, but I fought to get into the power into the project management department of the power company, and where I was mainly, you know, in charge of managing power plants rehabilitation projects. So I did that. And, you know, that got me some fame in the poor company. And I could say, that’s one of both one of the reasons why I got nominated for this master’s program in, you know, here in South Korea. So when I came here, I went through a second master’s degree in electrical engineering, this time around, coupled with a training in entrepreneurship. So I went to the string entrepreneurship as well and I got to interact with the Korean startup ecosystem. And I was so amazed, like wow, It’s it was crazy, it was mind blowing back then, you know, back then when I realize how, like, so many young people are, you know, fighting their night to, you know, bring the idea to life and how much support the government, you know, throws behind them to, you know, keep them moving forward. And I was like, you know, well, maybe if I did stay in Korea and you know, launch my own business, it could be. I mean, I could, I could at least have higher chances, right of getting off the ground. So I got this advice. Hey, Johnson, I know you want to do business in Korea, but I would strongly advise you to work for Korean company first. And that was great advice, actually. Because if I hadn’t gone through that experience of working for a Korean company first, there was so much which I wouldn’t be able to, you know, to do right now. Right, while running my own business. So I work for this Korean company called Sola Connect now called Lighten was really a good experience. One year with them, I got to learn much about the Korean energy industry, how I know how it works, how the Korean energy market works. And I equally built quite a number of networks, right, which, you know, which now proved to be very relevant for my Korean business. So that’s it as far as my career is concerned, I left to connect on me, those April 2020. And I, and I decided to launch my own business in the middle of this pandemic. And it’s been kind of kind of a good experience so far. A rollercoaster ride, too, of course, but yeah, definitely a worthwhile experience. Or at least the pandemic hasn’t got in the way of sunshine, which is a key ingredient for solar power. But I can imagine it did affect travel and some of the meetings that you needed to have. And like many of us, you’ve probably had to adapt to that. Can you tell us a bit more about the work that you’re actually doing, and that you’ve been doing over the last few months, so we can get an idea of what EcoLinks offers? Yes. So when I launched the business, back then, in 2020, or more actively in 2021, I had this vision of, you know, making clean energy accessible to all. How was I going to do that very precisely, I wasn’t very sure I didn’t have a very, very clear idea. So it kind of took me, you know, a few months. So actually, you know, developed my dear father and transform that into a real business, right. So I would say at EcoLinks, we strive to make clean energy accessible to all by providing this platform service for the financing, construction and installation of energy resources. So currently, we’re focusing on solar, but we call the company equaling not solid link. So we equally intend to expand to all their energy resources in the future. That’s basically what we’re doing at EcoLinks. And now with the current trends of, you know, this global trend of let’s go green, and let’s, you know, cut down on Co2 emissions, we are calling looking to get into carbon emission reduction projects, because we realize that’s actually more of the essence as much more urgent than any other thing right now. So we really need to take action, to cut down on carbon emissions and promote any form of technology, or any, any, any business which contributes to this global goal. You know, in Korea, ESG, including the environmental side of that has become pretty much as big as it is anywhere else, at least interest in taking it forward is as strong, as you will find. But does the reality match the rhetoric? In other words, when people talk about clean energy, are they actually taking on board the good advice that companies like yours has to offer? Well, I will say half and half. So over the recent, I would say years, more or less like over the past, especially during the pandemic era, to be precise, those being of course, as you rightfully said, is growing interest, right, in ESG. It’s being it’s a it’s, of course, a worldwide issue. But even here in Korea, you could actually feel that as well. You know, these days, you have more and more companies getting into more and, you know, into getting into green initiatives, for example, waste reduction schemes and, you know, any form of project which promotes the reduce of carbon emissions. I would say in my five years here in Korea, the past few years have been quite different. As far as this topic is concerned, there’s been increased awareness, right about the need to adopt sustainable practices in breeding production bead in our in our lifestyles everywhere. So I would say, of course, you know, there’s been great improvement in this as far as this topic is concerned. But what still needs to be done? No, this this, this can be refuted much than it’s been done as far as environmental preservation efforts are concerned as far as our emission reduction is concerned, even in our daily lives, right, so some people do take it seriously, others don’t. So we hope that, you know, through or through our business, and through our daily actions, we could actually somehow drive this machine this message further. Well, you based obviously, in Korea, but you’ve got global interests. Where is your primary focus at the moment, having seen you traveling in Africa, for example, various countries, is difficult for me to judge that. So I’d love to hear from you. Yes, so being Camerian with all the networks I have back home, we decided to launch our business in Cameroon. So that’s our main focus. However, it turns out this year, I would say from end of last year, we got support from the Korean African Foundation. And from this year, we’ll be getting even more support from Kotra, which is a Korean Trade Agency to expand our business in Ghana. So these days, we’re, you know, actively discussing with local partners in Ghana, and we hope to launch activities effectively in Ghana as from second quarter this year. What about the opportunities for investors and businesses based abroad, like here in Korea, if they had someone like you to work with them and make it happen in a country like Ghana? Well, I’d say the first is what we’re doing right now, we’re currently discussing with a few Korean companies and investment agencies to invest into clean energy or carbon reduction, carbon emission reduction initiatives. So right now, we’re looking into investing into clean cookstoves or, like more efficient lighting projects in Africa. So I don’t know if you’re familiar with the CDM, like, like Clean Development Mechanism, initiative evolved by the UN. This is actually this actually comes from the, you know, the COP events, cop 25, which COP 26 must have heard about them in the recent years. So it’s through this mechanism developed countries can invest into carbon emission reduction projects in developing countries. And through this, they can earn some carbon emission reduction certificates, basically. So as you know, the devolved countries or all the industrialized countries have some obligations reduce, you know, to cut down on the emissions, and no developing such emission reduction project is actually one of this method. So, we’re seeking to, you know, we believe there’s an opportunity here for Korean companies, or Korean vessels to partner with us, and develop such emission reduction projects in Africa. And that’s what we’re doing right now with a few of them already. There is some time some skepticism about foreign investment. In those types of projects and infrastructure generally, where do you see the line between entrepreneurship and the public sector, in an area like clean energy, and not just in Africa, but here in Korea as well, for that matter, just to try to ensure that it is affordable? Because if it’s not affordable, people not gonna jump on board? Clean Energy? Yeah. Well, the fact is, we can’t rely on the public sector to do everything, especially not in developing countries. And even in the developed countries. For the case of Korea, for example, what the Korean government did besides of course, its own part in developing clean energy resources was to develop a system, which enables private investments into the sector. I strongly believe in like, you know, being in developing or developed countries, what drives the economy forward is the private sector, but of course, the government has to play its own part in putting in place, the enabling framework and policies, you know, for that to happen. So that’s basically, I mean, like, the entrepreneurs like, you know, like, like myself, we need to, you know, despite what difficulties you know, despite the difficulties we might face, we need to keep on pushing forward. We’re playing our part in our in promoting the development of financial thinking energy initiatives, being in developing or developed countries. And if for whenever possible, we need to equally you know, liaise with the government and provide kind of, I could call it consultancy or, you know, policy suggestions, for example, that’s very, very common year here in Korea, especially, you know, the power companies will go to the government, it could be it for the Chamber of Commerce or you know, maybe even directly at times and say, hey, you know, what, for this clean initiative goal to be a Clean Development Initiative goal to get to be achieved, we need such such such policy in place. So I believe there needs to be this constant interplay between what parties one cannot do without the other. Now for you, PR Suddenly, whether it be holding court with high level officials or receiving personal accolades, you’re definitely gaining recognition for your efforts. And it’s wonderful to see. And I know you’re modest about it, but can you just take a moment to indulge me and tell us what it’s been like for you gaining that kind of personal recognition? Oh, well, me personally, I don’t really pay much attention. And so the recognition, I just, you know, focus more on what we know, and whatever agenda we’re trying to push forward, to drive forward. Right. So I would save anything such recognition, of course, first of all, kind of like serves as validation for our business or business model. But even more than that, it’s kind of our form of assurance that, you know, we can, like we have someone to rely on, you know, in order to promote our business or, you know, to promote the vision, which we know, which we’re striving for. Yeah, cuz, I mean, just a few days ago, I saw one of the images of you masked up, of course, but holding up a certification, what are some of the more helpful accolades that you’ve been able to enjoy either in the form of financial support or connections? Or, yeah, we’ve been two times in a row selected by the Korean Western Power generation company. You know, by like this, they’ve got this very awesome program, through which they support startups, through consulting, and then mentoring and of course, funding as well, as we’ve been selected by them to tag for two years in a row. And this year, again, we will be actively benefiting from the support. So besides them, as I mentioned before, we know we’ve got culture at the Korean Trade Agency, that’s going to be you know, our main, you know, I’m like our main was the party to rely on when it comes to developing your business in Ghana. And the will even take us as far as Brazil right now, for Latin American market. They will help us with local market research, or business matchmaking or even local sales. So we got all this, you know, all this help, which we’re getting from the Korean government and government agencies, besides them, I call him mention the Korea was the Korean African foundation. So last year, this agents, this government branch helped us in hooking us up with some very helpful business mentors, who have experienced doing business in Africa. And the mentoring was really very helpful. They I mean, that’s, it’s equally thanks to them. But I went to Africa last year, right, and like, visited several countries and explored opportunities for partnerships. Besides this few, we equally had the chance of working with what’s that Seoul Global Center. And equally had such we know very amazing mentoring programs, I would say, most of the the main benefit we’ve gotten is we know it’s really this mentoring and like this network expansion opportunities, and it’s been very, very helpful for us. And finally, I’d like to ask what advice you might have to give others seeking opportunities in clean energy or sustainable development, perhaps even ESG factors. Generally, I want to leave that open for you, and how far you want to extend your advice to others. So let’s say ESG is a very broad field. Right, there’s so much to do, within, you know, within the ESG ecosphere. If we bring that if we narrow that down specifically to clean energy, also carbon emission reduction initiatives, I would say it’s growing and rapidly expanding industry, right, you’ve got so much innovation, you’ve got so much government funding research and development projects going on in this field, especially over the past, I could say decade, and even more and even more so as ever since the onset of the of the pandemic. So there’s much opportunity in this industry. So, the advice I have for anyone was seeking to get into you know, into this business segment or this business area will be so for so study the field, actually, in trying to know more about which the whole field in general and of course, what specifically do they want to deal with then this huge, you know, ecosphere and after I know, once once once, once you’ve got the you know, all figured out then you need to form all the necessary partnerships because I would say this, like any business in general anyway. Like who you know, is really very important, like, you know, you need to have a huge network. When it comes to energy projects, it’s even much more relevant. Because, you know, it’s usually this such projects don’t depend on just one personal one on one One institution alone, like you’ve got so many moving parts, so many stakeholders involved. And it usually takes a while to build, you know, all this, all this inner to piece a piece like to put the pieces of the puzzle together and come up with the big picture. So it’s it’s a, it’s quite, it’s quite a long road initiative, I would say. It requires a certain amount of patience as well. But you really need to be passionate about it. If not, you might give up in along the way. Because it could be tough. Like I’ve had this I’ve had this experience with several young Korean people who like say, hey, Johnson, we like what you’re doing, we love your business, we love the idea to try and bring energy to clean energy to the open countries and stuff. It looks it looks so rosy on the outside. But then by the time you put you have to fit in, you know, they eventually realize, Oh, damn, it’s, it’s much more difficult than we actually imagined. So it really requires a certain amount of passion to keep going, you know, forward with such a business, despite all the difficulties, you know, involved, but it really helps to know that it’s, you know, when you when you focus on the on final goal, which is of transforming lives, you know, through this business initiative, bringing clean energy to you know, this on the privilege societies and helping them emerge from poverty or you know, what, when you feel or when you see the end result is really it’s very satisfying. No, well, thank you so much. And it’s been an absolute pleasure catching up with you. Same, same here. Alex was fun. Yeah, Johnson Penn CEO at EcoLinks, you can find EcoLinks via their website, which is very easy to remember, EcoLinks.kr. I’d also like to say thank you to the Four Seasons Hotel Seoul for making this episode possible, especially for the season of summer for making solar energy possible. Although it’s a lot more complex than just that. We will be back again same time tomorrow or whatever suits you. With daily Koreabizcast episodes being released Monday to Friday,