Ronald José Iriarte Suárez, chief international officer at Bolivian clean energy and ecomobility startup MOBI, shares his passion for clean energy, his experience working in South Korea, and his advice to entrepreneurs and start-ups looking to bridge the gap between Latin America and Asia, in this exclusive interview. This interview was originally conducted in Spanish.
Ronald, before we talk about MOBI, could you introduce yourself to our global audience?
I was born in the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, which is located in the tropical lowlands of eastern Bolivia and currently has a population of 3.2 million habitants in the whole department. It is both the economic engine and the largest city in Bolivia in terms of area. Living in Santa Cruz is very pleasant because it has a tropical climate and is surrounded by a lot of flora and fauna. The city was founded by the Spanish explorer Nuflo de Chavez in 1561, but until around 1950, the population was very small, with between 20,000 and 30,000 inhabitants. After that, however, the population grew yearly until it became a global metropolis. Its main industries are agriculture and livestock, with the most important exports being soya and its derivatives, meat and sugar.
I have loved sports ever since I was a kid, especially football. Having attended a German international school since I was five, when I was about 13 or 14, I had the opportunity to travel to Germany as an exchange student and also to play football. A few years later, I then had to make a very difficult decision: to pursue a career as a professional football player or to finish high school and go on to university. My parents advised me to continue my studies since football careers typically end very early, so I finished my baccalaureate, which allowed me to apply to and join Skema Business School in France.
It was during my studies in France that I went to South Korea for the first time on a volunteer program, which gave me my first exposure to Asia. South Korea attracted my attention because so much of their technology is ubiquitous in daily life.
What surprised you most when you first went to South Korea?
I think it was the discipline that Koreans have. I was very surprised by how hardworking they are, and to be honest, it was impressive how dedicated they were to their work. For example, during my volunteer program in South Korea, I had to wake up at 5 AM every day to work and study. That was a complete shock to me, though I liked that intensity. We had to do a lot of activities every day, which kept the mind busy.
Another positive is that Korean culture is very helpful and attentive, which helps fosters a certain confidence in business.
In your time there, how have you integrated Bolivian and Korean cultures in the work environment?
It is important to understand the differences between the two cultures. Take, for example, the concept of time. In South Korea, people work very fast – or as they say in Korean, “bali bali”, which means “hurry, hurry”. If a Korean says he is interested in buying something or doing a project together, he wants to close the contract as quickly as possible. On the other hand, if a Latino expresses interest, it is only an expression of interest. It is not certain that he will proceed with the project; negotiations have to take place. Of course, these are small examples, but this is more or less how both cultures work, in my experience. You have to know how to manage and adapt to these differences. Other aspects of Korean companies that are striking are their responsibility, discipline and punctuality.
You are now working for MOBI, a Bolivian startup in the clean energy sector. Why did you choose this startup?
I really like their mission. MOBI is an urban eco-mobility and clean energy startup with a shared mobility service. Better yet, it is a Bolivian company. In fact, I became acquainted with it through my work at the Bolivian Embassy in South Korea, during which time we collaborated on several aspects, in particular in building connections with local accelerators and incubators such as Born2Global, SparkLabs and D.Camp.
In Asia, my main job is to find strategic partners to advance our various projects. For example, we are now working with a Korean startup called Nanu Ev, which manufactures Swap Stations for discharged batteries. Not only do we want to import these Swap Stations, but we also want to transfer the technology to Bolivia and the Latin American region. The second step, which we are also exploring, is to establish a Swap Station assembly plant in Bolivia together with MOBI and the Biopetrol group.
I also visit many companies interested in entering Latin America, including lithium battery suppliers and companies involved in lithium purification.
At the same time, we are working with another company called DPECO, which was founded by former Hyundai and Kia employees. They are supported by a South Korean government accelerator and they are interested in establishing a Joint Venture (JV) with us as well as establishing electric car and bus factories in Latin America.
Do you think Bolivia is ready for technologies such as electric vehicles?
At the moment, we are not ready yet. There is a lot to do, which is why MOBI has a comprehensive strategy to build the ecosystem and educate society. We have to promote the use of electric vehicles.
In particular, we have a partnership with the Biopetrol group, which already has the infrastructure to build the necessary charging stations through its network of service stations. It is essential that we set up fast-charging structures everywhere, such as in shopping centres.
At the same time, we start manufacturing and/or importing our first electric motorbikes, as a first step, and then we move on to electric vehicles that may come from China or Vietnam, for example.
One important issue for Bolivia is the fact that its lithium deposits have not been adequately extracted. What are your thoughts about this issue?
It is a very sensitive issue. A Korean company, Posco, which is the leading steel company and one of the main lithium refiners in the world, has had a lot of difficulties in my country. That is partly why Korean companies have been a bit cautious about investing in Bolivia.
We currently have a new government and a new president. They have already invited several foreign companies to participate in new tenders for lithium extraction. Obviously, we want Korean companies to participate, since they are leaders in lithium battery production. Hopefully, the political situation will be more stable so that private companies will not be afraid to invest. We have to provide a better guarantee as a country when it comes to international investments and offer more comprehensive and robust legislation for public-private partnerships (PPPs).
How supportive has the public sector been when it comes to the sector of clean energy?
For now, it is private companies that have been working more on this issue. However, in my city we have a new mayor who is very open both to receiving investment from abroad and to working with international companies or PPPs. In fact, right now we are preparing for him to come to South Korea in August. Before he became mayor, he was a businessman who had the biggest brewery in the country before he sold it. Now, as mayor, he wants to open trade offices in some Asian cities such as Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore and Seoul, as he appreciates the importance of the Asian region for the development of technology. During his trip, he will visit Korean technology giants such as Samsung, Hyundai and LG.
What do you think Koreans think about Bolivians and Latin Americans in general?
In general, Koreans see Latin America as a region with great potential. In fact, South Korea is very supportive of Latin American countries through entities such as KOICA (the Korea International Cooperation Agency) and Korea Eximbank, the Export-Import Bank, which provides loans with excellent conditions to developing countries such as Bolivia to invest in areas such as basic education, health and infrastructure. Take for example the project developed by the Bolivarian Lafuente Business Group with the advice and design of LH (the Korean State Agency for Urban Planning and Development), which has chosen my city, Santa Cruz, as the location for the construction of the largest Smart City in Latin America, called the New City of Santa Cruz.
They also think it is an exquisite destination to visit, despite the fact that it is quite expensive to travel from South Korea. In 2019, about 20,000 Korean tourists visited Bolivia. The main attraction is the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat. They love it because it is said to be one of the places to visit before you die. There are also many other beautiful places in Bolivia, such as Tarija, where wine is produced, which has beautiful valleys, and Cochabamba, a city with beautiful views of the Andes.
Despite these positive points, they also recognise that many Latin American countries are quite unstable. That is why they usually prefer to build factories – for example, battery factories – in the United States.
Are Asian investors active in the Bolivian startup ecosystem?
There are not many yet. Asian investors are not yet encouraged to invest directly in a local company. One exception is SoftBank, a giant Japanese fund that has established a presence in the region. In fact, the CEO of Latin America, Marcelo Claure, is Bolivian. He is already very supportive of the startup ecosystem across Latin America. That is what we want to encourage, perhaps through a JV, since a Latin company can access funds from Korean banks, for example, if it has a South Korean partner.
The Asian investments that do exist more generally in the country are mainly from Japan and China and in the agricultural and mining sectors. In particular, the Japanese group Sumitomo has invested in copper and silver mines in Bolivia.
Finally, would you like to give some advice, first to your Latin colleagues about working in Asia, and then to your Asian colleagues about working in Latin America?
To my Latin colleagues, I would like to invite you to do your best to visit Asia, either to work or to travel. You will see other rhythms of life, other cultures and other ways of working, and at the same time, you will experience other technologies and innovations from the more established start-up ecosystems over there. It would be a great step for all Latinos. I would like Latino institutions and start-ups to be able to connect with their Asian counterparts to make strategic alliances and establish technology transfers. For example, Korea’s ‘Born2Global‘ programme helps Korean companies expand globally, including connecting with their peers in Latin America. It does this in an extraordinary way.
To my Asian friends, I would like to say that Latin American countries are very receptive to work with you. We are ready, waiting for you with open arms, ready to collaborate and grow with you.