Vivek Gupta, co-founder of Equicap Asia which is delivering InfraCo Asia’s South Asia Developer Services Program, has built a career in infrastructure literally from the ground up. With an eye for detail, and an obsession for thorough process, Vivek shares his views on what makes complex projects succeed.
“So much of my career has led me to this point, working to deliver InfraCo Asia’s mandate,” Vivek says.
His path—over a decade in infrastructure development across Asia, the Middle East and North Africa—has been defined by working with organisations that set store by thorough process.
“It was very early in my career that I realised what makes the difference between a successful infrastructure project and a failure,” the business manager and finance specialist says.
Equicap Asia was appointed as InfraCo Asia’s South Asia Developer Team in April 2016. Vivek first became acquainted with the organisation while working with Nexif, InfraCo Asia’s developer team for its first five years of operation. He parted from Nexif and co-founded Equicap Asia expressly to prepare for work with InfraCo Asia in a new capacity.
Equicap’s team of diverse regional experts are already exploring a portfolio of infrastructure projects that are ideal candidates for InfraCo Asia’s unique model. The team’s expertise ranges from the energy sector to logistics, transport, solid and liquid waste management and social infrastructure.
“The infrastructure sector is plagued by inherent challenges; key parties so often default.” Vivek says.
“Sometimes responsibility lies with sponsors or project promoters, but at the end of the day, natural factors come into play,” he says.
In his first project finance job with India’s Power Finance Corporation in 2005, Vivek became fascinated by the company’s record of almost zero Non Performing Assets (NPAs).
“In an industry where eight to ten percent NPAs was the norm, I was struck by this extraordinary result. They not only excelled at streamlining processes, but also worked to gauge what exactly goes wrong with project development and how to fix it,” he says.
“As a start point for me, it was a dream. I realised, from this example that you need to be willing to invest time beyond the scope of a lender,” Vivek says.
“As a lender, normally people come to you with a proposal and you have a project cost which is put forward by a sponsor. I learned not to simply accept the cost given. We would actually do a bottom up analysis of everything, including how much cement and steel it will take to build a project. The amount of ground work we put in was phenomenal.”
Vision and thoroughness
It is this notion of thorough ‘ground work’ that has stayed with Vivek in all his roles. When he started working with US company The AES Corporation, based in Dubai, he found an organisation with tremendous track record as a first-mover in the Middle East, beleaguered by its inability to replicate initial successes.
“They were a large organisation with huge potential to grow. They encouraged us freely to be confident to implement new things in order to improve business. Consequently I worked on the developer side but was able to get a view of the entire operation,” he says.
“It gave me a clear vision on the centre-point when you are leading a project.
“A lead is somebody who may not be an expert in everything, but they should be somebody who is able to see through the entire system and be able to see how the dots connect to form the bigger picture,” he says.
“Say you are trying to finalise a contract that might last for 25 years. You may or may not be there at the time when an issue surfaces, but your thought process should encompass the entire life of the project,” he says.
“It takes a lot of vision.”
In his time with AES, Vivek helped the company bring to financial close the Masinloc 600 MW coal fired power plant in the Philippines. The project was funded by both the International Finance Corporation and the Asian Development Bank.
“If you look at the last 20 years, there are not many transactions in which IFC and ADB have worked together, “ Vivek says.
“So getting these two large multi-laterals together was a fantastic experience. On all sides, we could learn from their documentation and governance. It was an excellent learning curve that put me in a much better position when I was leading projects subsequently.” Vivek says.
It also led him to value less conventional approaches to meeting the immense infrastructure development needs of emerging economies.
“Creative structures are important,” he says.
“A well developed project will always attract financing. It is not that lenders are not looking to fund, it is just that they do not find ample projects that are well structured. It’s not rocket science.”
“There is also a lack of appreciation of development skills, and this is often recognised only when it is too late to revive a project,” he says.
Vivek has already worked with InfraCo Asia on a series of hydropower projects in Nepal. At the time in 2012, Nepal did not recognise the concept of a holding company. Vivek worked to enable the first ever holding company to be incorporated for infrastructure in Nepal. Similarly, Nepal’s template for Joint Venture Agreements was also adapted for international market use. By working with government to bring about two basic structural changes, InfraCo Asia’s presence in Nepal played a key role in streamlining procedures and systems.
The South Asia Pipeline
With members based in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal, the Equicap team is exploring multiple opportunities for infrastructure development in South Asia, and selecting those it can make investment-ready. They are currently pursuing three primary projects on behalf of InfraCo Asia.
“One of these is a waste water treatment opportunity— the first of its kind for South Asia. This project would involve treated waste water being sold on a commercial basis. If successful, it would be a game-changer across the South Asian market. The technology is proven, but not in this geography,” Vivek explains.
L-R: Equicap Asia co-founders Shakti Dhar Suman and Vivek Gupta mark the South Asia Developer Services Agreement signing with InfraCo Asia Director and Procurement Committee Chair, Clive Turton and CEO, Allard Nooy.
“If we are able to provide the recycled water to industries, the amount of potable water which can be released for households is tremendous. The environmental benefits are large too. This water would otherwise be seeping into the ground, so this is about disposal via utility by industry,” he says.
The second project under investigation is the implementation of a large-scale hydroponics project: soilless irrigation on a commercial basis.
“This project involves some land, but mitigates dependence on soil quality, while trying to insulate farmers from dependence on weather conditions and rainfall patterns,” Vivek says.
“In India, we see farmers dying because of hunger and suicides. There is a lot of social damage when crops fail.”
The third project involves a container freight station alongside an air freight station and cold storage.
“We have seen globally that something like a cold storage and air freight station can be a game-changer again for farmers and fisheries. Lots of produce gets spoiled or wasted while waiting for customs clearance, because there isn’t the proper infrastructure to preserve it.”
Along with these early stage prospects, Equicap Asia will also investigate the revival of completed or partially completed infrastructure projects that are languishing due to other variables.
“Enabling abandoned projects stuck in difficult circumstances to find the light at the end of the tunnel creates a win-win for all stakeholders,” Vivek says.
“Equicap Asia and InfraCo Asia will assist such projects by bringing in essential high risk development capital and development expertise.”
Vivek relishes his work with InfraCo Asia because, he explains, they are a model lead-sponsor.
“In the past three months since signing the Developer Services Agreement with InfraCo Asia, we see that people understand the value of what we bring,” Vivek says.
“We evaluate projects commercially, but we also say: we believe in this project, and we believe we can deliver those returns,” he says.
“InfraCo works across an incredible range of sectors in that crucial risk capital phase, with the backing of various sovereign governments. The value proposition that puts on the table is immense.
“We step in to create projects that are structured well and developed at lower cost. This creates a benchmark going forward,” Vivek says.
“Success is something which you don’t actually need to go and tell everybody about. People notice what’s happening around them. What InfraCo Asia does automatically creates that demonstration effect. It is that leadership; that patience and responsibility that sets them apart.”
Vivek is equally passionate about the social and economic legacy InfraCo Asia’s creates.
“Social impact is at the heart of InfraCo Asia’s projects when you go and see them on the ground,” Vivek says.
“They are in remote places. Communities don’t have access to roads, let alone other basic utilities. No medical facilities, no schools, and only basic agriculture facilities. People are surviving. That’s it,” he says.
“We really can help people to live a better life, with much better access to services and opportunities. The simple construction of a road can give villagers access to their main city in a convenient way. An access road also means land value goes up tremendously.
“Schools and medical facilities emerge. It is clear that if a community is happy around you, you become part of the community.”
Looking ahead to his next decade in infrastructure, Vivek says he hopes to see widespread adoption of a thorough, 360° approach to infrastructure development in regions where the risks are traditionally higher.
“The real success measure for InfraCo ten years down the line will be that we see people adopting and replicating our approach,” he says.
“In fact, why wait ten years—we are already starting to see the impact of what we can demonstrate.”