Solving global warming is no small feat. However, the herculean task at hand did little to quell the entrepreneurial spirit within ecoligo CEO and co-founder Martin Baart.
As temperatures continue to soar and companies scramble to grow sustainably, he and co-founder Markus Schwaninger uncovered a proven solution that would not only benefit the planet, but also fossil fuel-reliant emerging markets as well as investors who are looking to invest money in an environmentally impactful way.
Since 2016, Martin and his co-founder tirelessly pioneered the sustainable energy movement by educating companies in developing countries that their geographical location provided favourable conditions to produce clean power, which means saving on monthly electric bills as well as their carbon footprint. On the other hand, Martin also focused on generating crowdfunding investment in Europe to finance these solar projects from end to end, providing investors with interest over time.
A passionate advocate for renewable energy with over 17 years of experience, Martin co-founded ecoligo to provide an answer to the industry’s biggest obstacle一the limited access to solar power due to its high capital. Today, he and his team are successfully driving the transition from fossil to solar energy in eight countries and raised more than $16 million euros from retail investors while saving more than 650 thousand tonnes of CO2 emissions.
In this interview, we sat down with Martin to discover how ecoligo’s groundbreaking business model came about, why the company’s solar-as-a-service solution is just the “tip of the iceberg” in the fight against climate change and his best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs looking to build a better world through sustainability.
My name is Martin, I am the co-founder and CEO of ecoligo. I have worked for 17 years in the renewable energy industry focusing on solar projects predominantly and for 13 years in emerging markets. That’s actually where my co-founder and I got the idea for ecoligo. We were working in emerging markets where the conditions for solar systems are really favourable. There’s a high level of solar irradiation and high energy costs for companies, which leads to great benefits, especially for businesses.
But what we saw in the markets was that many businesses did not opt for solar solutions because of the high capital expenditure upfront. That’s where our solutions come in一a fully-financed solar-as-a-service solution that allows clients to profit from significant cost reductions on energy costs and grow sustainably without the need to invest themselves.
First of all, it’s important to understand that climate change is happening and it’s actually affecting emerging markets more than the developed countries. In emerging markets, by installing renewable energy systems, there’s a much greater impact because their energy systems rely heavily on fossil fuels.
For every kilowatt hour of energy that we are introducing there, we are saving more CO2 emissions than in other markets. The way we save CO2 emissions is through the energy of the solar systems that is offsetting energy consumed from the grid. Thereby, companies save money while also reducing their carbon footprint. We are tackling this on a global level because climate change is affecting us globally. It is not just a regional problem.
In 2013, my co-founder Markus and I met in Nairobi at a solar conference. Back then, we were working for other companies. For two years, we joined forces and tried to implement these projects but we were not successful and it became clear that the obstacle was the missing access to finance. We then came up with a business model that takes care of the financing of the projects through private German retail investors who are looking for sustainable investment opportunities.
That was an obvious choice, because our friends and we ourselves were looking for these opportunities ourselves and couldn’t find any. We knew there was a lack of finance in the emerging markets, so we basically combined the two problems. To make sure the whole business model is secured, we own the solar systems and sell the solar energy. That way we can make sure that we take care of everything from maintenance, repairs, to monitoring the system and making sure that their investment is de-risked as much as possible.
Especially in the early days when you start a company, it’s a big challenge because you’re responsible for everything. When you start by yourself, you have to do the marketing, communications, accounting, bookkeeping, sales, product development… It was quite overwhelming.
But now that we have grown into a small company, what’s key is managing our people and making sure that they enjoy their work because they are the biggest asset we have as a company. We have very dedicated people that are motivated by our vision to cut CO2 emissions in these markets. We have to make sure that everyone feels that they can contribute to this goal and seize the growth opportunities that lie in front of us, as well as evolve their own personal growth inside of ecoligo.
Specifically in the Vietnamese market, Aspire helped us to provide financing for our projects. This is tremendously important because we were growing much faster than we had anticipated. That growth basically created a bottleneck, meaning we didn’t have enough retail investors yet to finance all of the projects that we have signed contracts with in the market.
We needed to bridge that gap and get financing to build the project for one obvious reason: the faster we build these projects, the sooner they start reducing CO2 emissions and help us on our path to saving the planet.
When we started 5 or 6 years ago, climate change was not something that was widely spoken about in the greater public. It was a niche topic that industry experts knew about and the same applied to solutions to reduce CO2 emissions.
That has drastically changed. Climate change is spoken about everywhere. That has helped us a lot, because in the early days of our business, we had to really convince the customers in emerging markets to adopt solar technology. In many of these markets, solar technology was also a rather new thing with only a few projects around.
Secondly, we had to make sure that the retail investors understood that with their investment, they are not only getting a financial return, but they are actually fighting climate change. That required much convincing on both sides of the market, but luckily we managed to do that and now our track record speaks for itself.
We have more than 100 projects signed with 83 customers in 8 countries. We have raised more than $16 million euros from retail investors and these projects are saving more than 650 thousand tonnes of CO2 emissions. It became clear from our growth that our model works and we can actually grow our impact.
I think we’re at a point where more people are aware of it than ever before, but I also think we’re not putting enough capital into the solutions that are available today. Most of the venture capital funds and financial markets are allocating funds to future technologies that still require 20 to 40 years of development before they become effective. That is not ideal.
We already have solutions that reduce CO2 emissions immediately, which we can scale easily by investing in them today. I am seeing change in how the markets behave, yet we are only at the beginning. If you put total capital available for climate tech or green tech companies in relation to the market size, we’re still only at a tiny fraction. This has to increase significantly so that we can stay within the 1.5 degree celsius target of the Paris agreement.
From starting my career, I always had this dream of having my own company one day. But I always thought I would be in my mid to late forties by then. It’d be when I’ve already raised my family, built a house and progressed significantly in my career and that’d be when I would have some money on the side and maybe have a smart idea and start a company.
But things obviously turned out a little different.
Starting the company 6 years ago, I was really driven by the fact that I saw this problem一 and together with my co-founder一saw the solution at hand. We were both so convinced by it that we had to try to see if it worked or not. We started a company much sooner than I ever imagined myself. But now we’re 6 years in the game, and it shows that we were right. This solution actually works.
We are active in eight countries and there’s a plan for us to grow in many more countries. We have potential projects in South Africa, Guatemala and the Philippines that we are working on quite actively. We also have a massive pipeline that’s totalling more than a thousand projects in this segment of commercial and industrial clients.
But when we think of this number, it is actually just the tip of the iceberg. The market is huge. According to the International Energy Agency, the Commercial and Industrial (C&I) market in emerging markets as of today spends $2.5 trillion euros on energy each year. That market is supposed to triple by 2030. If we think about the projects in our pipeline now, those could be multiplied ten thousand times in the next ten years.
My routine recently has changed since I’ve become a father. I start quite early with a hot cup of coffee because we have calls in the Southeast Asian region in the morning. I make sure I have my breaks during the day, as sitting in front of the computer for 10 to 12 hours can be quite exhausting. During my lunch break, I go out for a walk around the block with my little son and my fiancée for some quality time. In the evenings, it’s super important to get time away from any screen without any distraction from digital devices and services. It helps me recharge my batteries for the next day.
I love to go mountain biking on the weekends. I find too little time these days, but there is nothing more relaxing and challenging at the same time riding up a mountain, celebrating success and enjoying a fast downhill ride.
Besides that, my family is my hobby. I try to spend as much time with them on the weekends being outside of the digital world and enjoying a good time with them. I have a few nieces and nephews, whom I enjoy watching grow up. My secret passion is cooking and especially barbecuing. I barbecue everything from traditional to vegetarian dishes as long as I can stand in front of the barbecue.
If someone wants to start a business, especially when it’s an impact-focused business or one that contributes to sustainability, it has never been easier to do so than today. There’s more capital available and more general awareness in the public, so selling sustainable products or solutions is now much easier than it was 5 or 10 years ago.
In addition, technology has evolved significantly. Nowadays, technology for sustainable entrepreneurs enables us to develop business models that wouldn't have been possible a few years back. It’s also easier to implement bold ideas and make them work because technology is there to support it一whether it’s app-based, cloud-based or an AI-enabled solution.
It is also much easier these days to find talented people that are driven by purpose and impact.Our employees are our biggest asset. They’ve made the company what it is today. For anyone starting a business: Find the people that are motivated by your mission. It’ll help you grow a lot.