Matching Korean investors to developing-world needs

By Shin Hyon-hee

UNIDO Seoul gears up for first pilot project in Mozambique on biogas power plant

  • Published : Apr 6, 2014 - 20:45
  • Updated : Apr 6, 2014 - 20:45
This is the fourth installment in a series of interviews with chiefs of United Nations offices in Korea. ― Ed.

With industrialization playing a key role in economic growth, the U.N. Industrial Development Organization has been striving to bridge Korean businesses and emerging markets through research, surveys and seminars since the launch of its Seoul office in 1987.

The office is now gearing up to put its cause into action: After years of study, it will embark on its first-ever pilot program in Mozambique on biogas power generation this year.

Under the three-year project, UNIDO will join forces with a group of small and midsize firms here specializing in waste-to-energy technology to design, build and operate the plant, which will help enhance the African country’s waste management while boosting electricity supplies, its regional chief said.

“We’re trying to give businesses the belief that it will pay off if they invest in these developing countries, and to make a good partnership model by harnessing Korea’s experience,” Rhee Soo-taek told The Korea Herald.

“Ultimately this is what UNIDO is all about ― helping the private sector in developed countries to build industrial facilities, create jobs and transfer technologies in developing ones so that they can stand on their own two feet.” 
Rhee Soo-taek, head of the U.N. Industrial Development Organization’s Investment and Technology Transfer Promotion Office in Seoul, speaks during a recent interview with The Korea Herald. (Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald)

The Vienna-headquartered agency was founded in 1966 to promote the industrialization of developing countries and foster technology cooperation between the rich and poor worlds.

It opened the Investment and Technology Transfer Promotion Office in Seoul in 1987 following Korea’s membership two years earlier.

Known for his expertise in multilateral affairs, Rhee took the helm at the office in May 2011 after retiring from the Foreign Ministry.

During his 30-odd-year diplomatic career, he took up various key posts including head of Asia and Pacific studies at the state-run Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, president of the National Institute for International Education in the Education Ministry, consul general in Montreal and political counselor at the mission to the U.N. in New York.

For ITPO Seoul, the Mozambique plan would provide a watershed in its 27-year history as the inaugural field project, Rhee said.

“In the past, we focused on surveys such as on what kind of problems and merits would occur if Korean firms invested in a certain region,” Rhee said.

“Now we’re seeking to make real investment cases out there in which job creation and technology sharing could happen.”

Albeit small in size and short of resources, its staff has been traveling around sub-Saharan Africa to find the best possible location for the program.

On-site surveys in countries from Ethiopia and Tanzania to Cameroon and Ghana showed that trash was a huge headache for all of them.

“They’re thrilled to learn that they can produce electricity from garbage,” Rhee said.

“They just needed to set up an environment where landfills can be utilized, instead of throwing things away here and there in the vast land. For our project, Mozambique seemed the best choice.”

To expand cooperation with businesses, UNIDO is working with an increasing number of related state agencies and institutions and trade associations here.

The organization clinched a memorandum of understanding with the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency in Vienna last year, which Rhee expected to beef up its network in particular with small and medium enterprises.

“Unlike major corporations doing well on their own, there are numerous outstanding smaller firms that are willing to venture abroad and have a global business mindset but do not know enough about the region,” he said.

“We’re meant to help them prepare through surveys, advice and demonstration programs. The biggest reason why we do the pilot projects is to show them it works ― it is profitable.”

In line with progress in Africa, Rhee is looking to broaden the office’s forays. ITPO Seoul plans to undertake its first field trip to Latin America this year in line with the foreign and environment ministries with a focus on “green industrialization.”

For the entire agency, North Korea remains a daunting challenge given extremely limited access and other systemic obstacles, according to Rhee.

UNIDO’s Beijing unit is currently carrying out a small project in the reclusive country to curb chlorofluorocarbon emissions as part of an international campaign to phase out the ozone-depleting substances.

“We UNIDO are hoping to contribute to opening up North Korea and resolving the issue but I guess they are not ready yet,” Rhee said.

Still South Korea will inevitably assume the biggest role in the communist state’s economic reconstruction when the time comes, he added.

“A major task at hand for Seoul is to figure out how to harness international organizations like the U.N. to improve inter-Korean relations in the meantime,” he said.

“We’re like a matchmaker ― or goodwill broker ― in the global community.”

By Shin Hyon-hee (