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Difference Maker

Tri Mumpuni Iskandar builds small hydro plants to bring electricity to Indonesian villages

A petite entrepreneur wants to bring hydropower to the 90 million Indonesians without electricity.

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In the nearly 20 years since Mumpuni's husband, Iskandar Budisaroso Kuntoadji, founded IBEKA, the couple has worked tirelessly to electrify the most remote corners of Indonesia. The task has taken them high into the mountains and deep into the jungle. It has also jeopardized their safety.

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In 2008 former combatants kidnapped them in the once-restive province of Aceh. Mumpuni says she and her husband, who focuses on the technical and engineering aspects of the projects, hoped the former separatist soldiers would transform their weapons-building skills into making power-generating turbines.

"But actually, they wanted quick money," she says, "and the best way to do that was to take people for ransom." Mumpuni's release came after 15 hours in captivity, but it did little to shake her convictions. "We're committed to work for the poor, and this is one of the challenges," she says.

Dressed in sneakers and jeans, Mumpuni frequently visits project sites to see what it's like to live without electricity, an experience she finds disorienting and filled with limitations.

IBEKA also provides scholarships to schoolchildren and seed capital for villagers wanting to start small businesses.

While expressing disgust for socialites who spend $1,000 on Prada handbags, Mumpuni says she's hoping to get 1,000 of them to each donate that amount to her social enterprise. (Her brash, outspoken talk is rare in polite Indonesian society.)

Mumpuni has also successfully lobbied for policy changes that allow independent microhydropower plants to sell electricity to the government-run national grid. She's pushing the company to devote half of its profits to community development.

"Her contribution is so huge," says Pradygaha Kumayan Jati, a mechanical engineer and part of the development team for a project in Cianjur, a two-hour drive southeast of Jakarta. "She knows how to motivate the rural villagers and the strategy to make [a project] sustainable."

The daughter of an economist and a social worker, Mumpuni spent a contented childhood in Central Java. After attending university she received a scholarship from the Rockefeller Foundation to study energy and sustainable development.

She hopes to tell more stories in the future about the simple pleasures brought by electricity. "I saw people who once lived in darkness," she says. "They just want light in their lives. Can you imagine?"

• See or e-mail Mum­puni at:

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