This farmer gave 600 homes cheap electricity that the power company couldn't
At first, he was mocked for being “crazy”. But now, even the national electric company wants to buy his DIY hydro-power operation - and it all began with a dream to give his remote Indonesian village a better life.
ANDUNGBIRU, East Java, Indonesia: Rasid came close to dying, twice.
The first accident happened at the watermill that he built with his own hands. He got himself caught in a moving wheel linked to the generator, and it left him bedbound for four months with broken arms and fractured ribs.
“And I couldn’t even eat,” he recalled.
The second accident took place at his micro hydro power plant. He was electrocuted, then collapsed on the fast-spinning wheel of the pulley system, which carved into his thigh. When found, he was lying in a pool of blood, unconscious and barely breathing.
These traumatic experiences may have left their marks on his body, but Rasid - a self-declared “energy warrior” - remains fearless. “This is a fight. There are always challenges in a fight. It’s not a problem,” he declared.
For the people in his village, Rasid is more than a fighter.
The 48-year-old farmer is the reason they now have lights in the house, refrigerators to keep food fresh, and television sets to inform and entertain.
Electrical appliances were once useless to them because they had no electricity. But since 1994, their homes have been powered by the watermill and the micro hydro power plants that Rasid runs - and built - largely by himself.
No one had helped because back then, nobody believed that a farmer would know how to generate electricity.
“I thought it was impossible,” said Ustaz Saiful Ilham, a friend and a religious school teacher. “How can water turn wood and create energy?”
A CHILDHOOD WITH NO LIGHT
Having electricity at home was a childhood dream that sprouted from desperation.
Rasid was born in Audungbiru, a village on the western slope of Mount Argopuro, a volcano in East Java.
Argopuro is not well-known like its neighbour, the mighty Mount Bromo, one of the world’s most active and scenic volcanoes. But locals appreciate it for its myriad springs and waterfalls and mineral-rich, fertile soil.
As much love as Rasid has for his rural hometown, the lack of opportunities and amenities had frustrated him from an early age.
Growing up, he loved reading, learning and going to school, even though the latter was 6km away. It took him at least an hour to walk there, and one more hour to get home.
His biggest problem happened at night when he wanted to do homework or read the Quran.
We used an oil lamp, and It made my eyes tire easily. That was the most frustrating thing. And when the wind blew, we couldn’t study anymore.
“Then we’d have to do homework the next day at dawn, before school," he said.
Kerosene oil for the lamps didn’t come cheap, either, so his family couldn’t always afford it. That was why young Rasid’s dream was to have electric lights at home and in the village.
The only way to achieve it, he thought, was to study hard. “Then hopefully one day, I could use my knowledge to develop the village’s potential,” he said.
A DESPERATELY-POOR STUDENT
After primary school, with nothing but a small plastic bag of clothes and his parents’ blessings, Rasid moved to Probolinggo, the nearest city. Poverty wasn’t an excuse to give up education.
He worked odd jobs to put himself through vocational school where he learnt the basic principles of mechanical engineering. He was hoping to set up a bicycle workshop after graduating high school.
“I was always helping my friends repair their bikes. I thought it was useful knowledge,” he said.
But life was a daily struggle. Without money to buy food, the young man often felt hungry. “After school, I became a little jack of all trades.," he recounted.
People scolded me (for trying to work) because I was too young, but no problem - I could sweep, clean room. Don’t even need to talk about money. If they gave me food, I was grateful.
At some point, he became a rickshaw puller. But a sudden bout of typhus forced him to quit work and, more devastatingly, school, at the age of 19. Not completing senior high school is something Rasid has always regretted.
Instead, he went home and became a farmer like his parents, growing coffee, corn, bananas, ginger and chilli on state-owned land - earning less than US$350 a month.
A DUTCH INSPIRATION
In 1992, during Hari Raya, Rasid called on an uncle who was working as a plantation supervisor in Jember, 50km away on the southern slope of Mount Argopuro.
It was more than a social visit. Although the village was off the national power grid, just like Andungbiru, the plantation had street lamps powered by electricity. Rasid was intrigued, and investigated.
It turned out that the electricity was generated by an old watermill built during the Dutch colonial era.
“Can I take a look inside?” he asked the uncle.
“Sure,” came the reply.
Historically, watermills have been around for more than 2,000 years, and their main purpose was to grind grain. But in 1878, in a country house in England, moving water was used to light a single electric arc lamp, in the world’s first use of hydropower.
The Dutch watermill that Rasid saw in Jember was made of metal, and used an overshot wheel design, so water hits near the top of the wheel to make it rotate.
He took measurements, and mentally noted the design of the belt and pulley system that transmitted kinetic energy to the generator.
“This is simple,” he thought to himself. “I can do it. I have to do it.”
ACHIEVING THE “IMPOSSIBLE”
Back home, Rasid told his new wife, Sulyani, who is eight years younger, his plan.
“How are you going to get the metal?” she asked.
“Easy. I will just use wood,” he replied.
He then told his parents the same thing. “My father didn’t believe that I could do it, but said he would support me anyway,” Rasid recalled.
His neighbours, though, were not so kind. "People said, ‘You’re just a lowly person, do you really think you can generate electricity?’
"Others said I was weird, crazy, that it was all nonsense. ‘He doesn’t even have a job or a house. Why doesn’t he say things like that?’”
Rasid took it all in stride. “If you give up because people say things about you, then you’re even more stupid,” he said. "If people mock you, it should motivate you.
If they humiliate you, that’s good. Why? Because it makes you think, ‘Just wait and see, I will prove it to you.’
With nothing but a blueprint in mind, he got to work.
On his farmland is a stream that has water flowing non-stop all year, even in the dry season. He found the perfect spot to build his watermill on a section with a 3m drop.
To fund his project, he sold the two cows he owned. He then bought wood that he cut and assembled into the water wheel.
He even adapted the design to have water hitting the bottom instead of the top of the water-wheel because, he said, this creates more energy.
He also needed a generator, but had no money to buy a new one. So he got a broken one and fixed it.
The most challenging part of the design, however, was the belt and pulley system that connects the waterwheel to the generator.
For months, he could not get the wheels in the system to synchronise properly to produce the number of rotations required to generate power. After two failed prototypes, it was third time lucky for Rasid.
In 1994, the watermill was finally up and running. For the first time, there were bright lights in the village after dark.
With it, he was able to supply clean, renewable energy to about 75 households, 24/7.
WATCH: Rasid's incredible journey (8:13)
PAYMENT BY EGGS, OR FOR FREE
Some folks initially sceptical of his idea turned into staunch supporters. “I was not a believer but when he actually got electricity to run for this mosque, I became one,” said Ustaz Saiful.
“With electricity, my students can study longer. Hopefully it would help them with their ambitions, to become whatever they wish to be.”
Indeed, community institutions like mosques, clinics, and schools get free electricity from Rasid.
He explained: “I really want the education standards among us to improve, so that the new generation can upgrade themselves and move forward.”
He also supplies events like weddings and funerals with free electricity, because “who would help our community if not for little people like us within the community itself?”
For families, the charge was about Rp7,000 (US$0.50) a month in the early days.
And if people couldn’t afford to pay cash, Rasid allowed - and still allows - payment in kind. “You can pay with fruits and coffee, as long as it has value,” he said. "Chickens or eggs, also can."
“One egg is Rp1,000. Ten are worth Rp10,000. It’s good. You can even use lamb!
"And if someone really cannot afford it, it is free of charge. Why? Because I remember when I was poor, even to buy rice was very difficult.
"I don’t want to make it difficult for people. I want to make them happy.”
Demand for electricity from Rasid’s one-man power station quickly grew, and he had to come up with new ways to scale up the operation.
EXPANDING WITH NEW TECHNOLOGY
In 1999, Rasid learnt of micro hydro power - another way to generate energy from water without the purchase of fuel.
But the machine was expensive. Nonetheless, Rasid barely hesitated to sell the family truck to fund the new project.
Sulyani, his wife, wasn’t happy. “Why do you keep doing this? How about your kids?” she asked.
“Don’t worry,” Rasid told her. “The kids will have their own blessings.”
To make the new water turbine work, he had to divert water from the river further upstream, and funnel it into pipes that he had yet to buy.
His plan also included digging a 500m-long, 1m-wide channel to redirect water back to the stream, while providing irrigation for 60ha of rice fields.
In short, it was a massive project.
But this time round, he didn’t have to do it alone. Villagers chipped in and within a few months, the project was completed.
Rasid estimates that it cost him US$50,000 to set up the village’s first micro hydro power plant.
NATIONAL GRID VS LOCAL HERO
While Rasid and his friends were building the plant, Indonesia’s state-owned electricity company Perusahaan Listrik Negara (PLN) finally announced plans to expand the national power grid to Andungbiru.
Once again, tongues started wagging. “They said, ‘Rasid is stupid. There’s now electricity supply but he still wants to create energy plant.'"
But these people soon began to sing a different tune.
While Rasid continued to charge households around Rp67,000 (US$5) a month for power, neighbours who switched to PLN were being charged around Rp270,000 (US$30) - six times as much.
To make things worse, PLN’s electricity supply wasn’t as reliable.
“Sometimes it was blackout, sometimes it was on,” said Kusnadi, Rasid’s brother. “The power was not strong enough while they were paying expensive fees. In the end, they prefer Rasid.”
So eventually, everyone switched back to the power grid built by the local “energy hero”.
Today, Rasid’s power station serves about 600 households in four villages.
DEATH AT HIS DOOR
Rasid no longer runs his enterprise - which he has named Tikta Pijar Sumber Makmur (roughly translated to mean “glowing water, source of prosperity”) - alone.
Two of his brothers and a few relatives are helping out with operations and maintenance. “Maintenance is even more complicated than making it,” he said.
Rain or shine, day and night, whenever blackouts happen, the team gets it fixed. However, even the simplest maintenance work can prove life-threatening if they aren’t careful.
Rasid once found a severed coil in the micro hydro power plant’s electric panel during a routine check.
The moment he tried to reconnect the wire, he was jolted unconscious by the electric shock, and fell right into the pulley system attached to the generator.
“At home, lights began to flicker,” said Kusnadi, who immediately realised something had gone wrong.
The 37-year-old rushed to the power plant, and found his older brother lying in a pool of blood, his right leg mangled by the machine. He carried him home.
Sulyani still vividly remembers the scene. “I kept crying because there was a lot of blood,” she said.
We couldn’t bring him to the hospital because we didn’t have money. I was scared he would die.
Eventually, the brothers did manage to get Rasid to the nearest hospital some 40km away. But they had no money to pay for the surgery.
By then, Rasid had come round. Emotionally, he was less affected than everyone else around him.
“I told them, ‘Don’t worry. Just relax.' I’ve always helped people. If they have a celebration, the electricity is free. If someone passes away, the electricity for the funeral is free.” He was certain people would come forward to help. And they did.
Villagers visited him by the truckloads. “They donated small amounts,” Rasid recalled. “Rp1,000, Rp5,000, some even Rp15,000. Until there was enough for the surgery.”
Learning from his mistake, he has since changed the procedure to make sure maintenance is always done in pairs.
But when blackouts happen at night, Sulyani still begs her husband to stay home. “I tell him not to go at night. Just go in the afternoon,” she said. “But he doesn’t listen. He always feels bad for the children who would cry in the darkness.”
VISION FOR THE FUTURE
Two years ago, PLN gave up trying to compete with Rasid. The company offered to buy his operation and pay him about US$4,000 a month - more than ten times his monthly profit.
Rasid turned down the deal. “I would receive a big salary, but I didn’t want to. Now I need to think because there are challenges - my brain keeps working and ideas keep coming.
"But if I take the deal, I would become stupid because I wouldn’t need to think anymore.”
To benefit more people, Rasid plans to expand his operation further. “My goal is to improve the welfare of the poor, to create jobs for them."
But besides giving people electricity, he also wants to improve the village’s mobile phone reception so that people can get on the internet.
It is especially important to him that children in Andungbiru get to realise their full potential, and not have to struggle the way he did.
“I want to create labs for the students from primary to high schools. They can learn there for free. Hopefully, the kids will be smart because of education.
"That is my solution for the future.”
For more stories of InspirAsians like him, check out CNA Insider.