Washington — If it is better, as a Chinese proverb says, to light a candle than to curse the darkness, how much better is it to bring electricity generated by clean, microhydroelectric plants to dozens of remote villages?
That’s been the life’s work of social activist and entrepreneur Tri Mumpuni, who, with her husband, Iskandar B. Kuntoadji, and their nonprofit IBEKA Foundation, has built five dozen small power plants in Indonesia. Mumpuni had studied the economics of agriculture and journeyed around the world to learn about energy, sustainable development and environment as a Rockefeller Foundation fellow. Her geologist husband had learned about microhydro plants in Switzerland.
Villagers participate fully in the planning and construction of the plants, then maintain them as cooperatives. Most plants generate from 5 kilowatts to 60 kilowatts, but IBEKA has also completed projects as large as half a megawatt. Capital comes from private investors, development agencies and large corporations.
Mumpuni believes that electricity is not an end in itself — it must provide livelihoods to the poor, she told the Philippine Star, a Philippine newspaper. This happens when villagers can work longer hours and earn more money, farmers can use electric equipment, and children can study in the evening. In addition, IBEKA convinced authorities to allow microplants to connect to the grid and sell excess energy to the state utility, PLN. The revenues fuel school, road and health improvements in the communities that own the plants.
The U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific selected IBEKA Foundation’s microhydro methods as a model for public-private partnerships. In 2010, at the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship in Washington, Mumpuni was introduced to President Obama, who saluted her in his speech. Later, she became a member of the governing board for the Global Entrepreneurship Program Indonesia, a U.S. State Department–led effort to promote entrepreneurship.
In August 2011, Mumpuni added the Ramon Magsaysay Award — known as “Asia’s Nobel Prize” — to her collection of honors.
She has overcome many obstacles, including restrictive state regulations and complex financial requirements, to achieve her goals. In 2008, she and her husband were kidnapped by rebels in volatile Aceh province, where IBEKA undertook a microhydro project. She told the militants they’d be heroes in their community if they used their gun-making skills to build turbines instead.
Unmoved, they asked her to go back to the city and get a 2 billion rupiah ransom — roughly $220,000 — or her husband would be beheaded. She bargained them down and frantically raised $60,000 from family and friends to secure his release.
It hasn’t diminished her zeal for working with the poor. “I got in my life so many privileges from God, this is the way to pay back,” Mumpuni said. More than 100 million of Indonesia’s 230 million people still live in the dark, as do 1.6 billion people worldwide. “Can you imagine?” she said. “It really touches your heart when you come to a village and see the kids very tired at night, trying to read their books with a very small light.”
So Mumpuni and IBEKA are thinking bigger these days. The foundation has started sharing the technology and business model with other countries in the Africa and Asia-Pacific regions, and Mumpuni has been regularly traveling across the world to get financial support from private investors and aid agencies for more than 30 new projects. She said those projects will bring electricity to 200,000 people and create jobs for more than half a million.
“What I am doing [now] … is impossible for me to do on my own,” Mumpuni said.
Staff writer Andrzej Zwaniecki contributed to this article.