Illuminating a village

Ag engineer’s work brings light to Afghan villagers

Bringing light into the world has taken on a whole new meaning for Bowdle native Owen Schumacher ’77. The agricultural engineer designed simple hydropower equipment which uses streams and rivers throughout the rugged mountains of Afghanistan to generate electricity for villages.

Only one in three homes in the war-torn country have electricity, and 70 percent of those are in Kabul, the nation’s capital. For those in remote mountain villages, Schumacher’s equipment generates electricity to light homes, heat water and even watch television.

“Only 20 percent of the small scale hydropower potential has been developed so far,” Schumacher explains. He has been working in Afghanistan for more than 20 years, mostly in Kabul.

Desire to help others leads to Afghanistan mission

In the United States, Schumacher worked in the farm tractor industry at John Deere and then Kubota Tractor Corp. for 13 years. He and wife Debby, a nurse, knew other professionals who had used their abilities and education to help others, and decided to do so before starting a family.

“This fit mine and my wife’s values,” Schumacher says.  The Schumachers went to Afghanistan in March 1991 and joined the International Assistance Mission, a small nongovernmental humanitarian aid organization operating in Afghanistan since 1966. The organization has 17 projects in seven provinces working on health and development issues, including renewable energy.

“There was a strong group of aid workers who all worked together and we all wanted to make a difference,” he says. The original group consisted of 30 professionals, but that has now grown to more than 50. The number of aid organizations has also increased dramatically.

“When we started a family in Afghanistan, we knew the dangers,” Schumacher says, but since there were other families as well, it didn’t seem unusual. The Schumachers have four children–Joy, 20, a sophomore in the SDSU nursing program; Grace, 18; Wesley, 14; and Jeremy, 11.

“Our kids are very normal even after living their lives in Afghanistan,” Schumacher says. However, he adds, “They think international rather than national.”

Unlike those who work for larger organizations and live in communities with security guards, International Assistance Mission people reside in standard Afghan houses throughout the city. After learning the language and customs, Schumacher says, “it became more comfortable to function.”

Turbines designed for simplicity, reliability

As an engineer, Schumacher began working with Afghans to develop a means of harnessing the mountain streams to produce electricity. Simplicity was the key to the design, since he had limited workshop equipment and raw materials.

“We make everything locally except the alternator, which is imported from China,” says Schumacher. At local workshops, he trains technicians who make the equipment that produces the power and the structures that divert the water from the stream for the micro-hydropower plants.

The villagers prepare the site, build the powerhouse, reroute a stream or retrofit a traditional stone flour mill, and then transport the plant equipment, often using donkeys or horses, through the mountains.

Social and cooperation problems within the community can be more difficult than technical ones, Schumacher says. “We always put the people’s needs first, rather than dictating what should be done.”

Schumacher’s technicians then guide those who install the equipment and train local people to operate and maintain the plant.

Because of this, the equipment had to be simple enough so the components could be easily built and assembled by local people, Schumacher says, “yet efficiency, durability and performance would stay at a high level.”

From 1995 to 2005, International Assistance Mission installed about 400 micro-hydropower plants. In addition, Schumacher and his team developed water turbines uniquely suited to Afghanistan, introduced an electronic load controller and trained hundreds of technicians to build and install the equipment.

“The turbines we designed were highly efficient,” Schumacher says. The Waterpower Laboratory at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology documented the maximum efficiency of the company’s cross-flow turbine as 78.6 percent, and its Kaplan turbine as 87.7 percent.

Remote HydroLight brings power, employment

In 2006, Schumacher left the humanitarian aid organization and started Remote HydroLight, a private Afghan company, to continue the work and to sell this equipment to other countries through In the last six years, his company has built and installed about 120 plants. During peak demand, he employed up to 25 workers.

A 130-kilowatt hydroelectric plant situated on the Panjshir River in northern Afghanistan has been producing power continuously since December 2008, Schumacher explains. However, this is the largest one his company has built. The most common plant produces 10 kilowatts of electricity, enough to power lights and small electronics for 70 to 100 families.

“We go overboard in building relationship and providing service because we want to win their hearts and minds so they focus on building up their community,” Schumacher says. “Working side by side in the dirt and water is the best way to earn their respect.”

Because the hydropower plant is often the first mechanical device the villagers have operated, Schumacher says, his staff must teach them about electrical safety and guidelines such as keeping the safety guards in place on rotating devices. Nearly all the plants are low voltage at 230 volts, so this helps reduce the danger, Schumacher explains.

More privately funded projects, healthy development

Recently, insecurity within the country and less financial aid from the United States and Europe has hurt business, Schumacher explains. “Development is difficult without peace on the ground,” he says.

Despite this, he has seen growth in the number of privately owned plants installed in villages without outside aid, which, he says, “is a very healthy development.”

“The local industry that we helped train is very capable of meeting the need without our help,” Schumacher says. “It is time for the Afghan government to secure its own country and bring security to its people.”

The international security forces have provided many military resources, but what the Afghans need, Schumacher explains, “is honest, transparent and sincere people running the government ministries that will treat everyone equally.”

As for Schumacher and his family, he says “we have always had to make short-term plans and we will see what the future brings.”

Christie Delfanian

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