Partnering for Progress

When development agencies work together, they achieve what they cannot alone
By: Chris Warren, Winrock International

Ina Hommers knew she faced a problem. As the head of the Nigerian Energy Support Program (NESP) – a project funded by the European Union (EU) and German government which aims to increase the use of renewable energy in Africa’s most populous nation – Hommers and her colleagues had worked hard to provide the technical expertise required to make two solar-powered mini grids a reality.

But in 2016 Nigeria’s economy took a nosedive, and the prospects for actually financing the projects suddenly looked bleak. “During the economic crisis, we were not sure we could close financing on those projects,” says Hommers, who works for GIZ, the technical arm of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, the implementer of NESP. “A lot of the financial assumptions had completely changed and we had to remodel those projects. At the same time, we couldn’t provide enough financial expertise to still do this project.”

Fortunately, Hommers was able to tap financial expertise outside of GIZ that was able to keep the solar mini grid projects moving forward. Indeed, thanks to a close partnership with the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Program (REEEP), funded by USAID and Power Africa, not only are two pilot mini grids now delivering the many benefits of clean electricity to rural Nigerian villagers, but a template for the development of many more has also been established.

This likely would not have happened without the close partnership. “GIZ brought in a German company that is experienced running mini grids around Africa. They’re the best technical experts out there,” says Javier Betancourt, Chief of Party for REEP, which is implemented by the U.S.-based NGO Winrock International. “But theirs was not an access to finance program. You have to go out and create relationships with financial institutions, the central bank, and investors. That’s what I do.”

Working together, REEEP and NESP were able to combine their strengths in a way that has delivered the tangible and lasting benefits of rural electrification to many Nigerians. Unfortunately, this sort of partnership is a rarity in the development world. “What happens many times is that donors have similar projects, but run into challenges with timing,” says James Lykos, Deputy Director of the Office of Economic Growth and Environment at the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Nigeria mission. “They’ll have similar projects and one will have been going for a couple of years and doesn’t want to change focus or modify its contracts. The REEEP project and NESP were happening at similar times and had a similar focus area.”

But it’s about more than just good timing and complementary skills and goals. A good partnership requires trust and the understanding that bolstering one another’s efforts delivers a lot more to beneficiaries. “There was a lot of sharing and that allowed both of us to go way beyond what either one of us would be able to do,” says Betancourt. “It’s a matter of trust and coordination and making it click and work. On my side, I wanted to make it work and they did too, so nothing was holding us back.”

That foundation of trust meant that NESP and REEEP were able to collaborate on more than just solar mini grids. The partnership also extended to the development of high-quality training programs to educate the solar installers, mini grid designers and other professionals Nigeria will need for its renewable energy sector to take off. Working together also allowed the programs to speak with a single, strong voice when dealing with the Nigerian government, banks, and other stakeholders. “To combine the European Union, USA and Germany on one side of the table pushing for joint activities does create a much different impetus and has a much stronger force,” says Hommers.

For his part, USAID’s Lykos would like to make the sort of partnership that made REEEP and NESP so successful a lot less of an anomaly. “I’d like to see it happen in all sectors and industries,” he says.