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Ap Namgay Wangchuk: A village genius
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A farmer experiments with technology
On a tour wth Ap Namgay
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A farmer experiments with technology
Ap Namgay Wangchuk of Shingchug village, Punakha, and (inset) some of his innovations
A genius is not necessarily a product of education. This rings true for Ap Namgay Wangchuk, a farmer from Shingchug village in Punakha, who at the age of 50 would put Thomas Elva Edison, the father of many inventions, to envy. Tall and bare-footed, sporting short grey hair and moustache, Ap Namgay has over the years become more of an inventor than a farmer.

He has devised a way of using water from the irrigation canal to run three devices: flour-grinder, rice huller and oil expeller. Not only that he generates his own electricity from it making him the only farmer to do so in Bhutan.

Inside a makeshift hut, Ap Namgay's explanations of each operation is as compelling as his ingenuity to experiment with technology, a subject alien to farmers. All operations are hinged on the laws of physics.

For water flow, he uses the village's irrigation canal that passes by his house. Dam as such is not visible but he uses a small opening blocked by a wooden plank placed alongside it. When the plank is pulled out water rushes down through a steep hollow log. Six meters below the force of water spins a home-made turbine made of several wood planks tied around with strings. This in turn spins the big wheel inside the hut, the cumulative effect being the spinning of various other wheels attached to the rice-grinder, flour huller and the oil expeller with belts while at the same time producing electricity - all simultaneously. A "Kuboto dynamo", actually used for power tiller, is used to generate electricity. Electricity is yet to reach the village. But Ap Namgay has no problems: for the past seven years he has had enough to light about 14 bulbs every night.

On a tour with Ap Namgay

Among the many spin-offs, which his innovations produce, is the increase in income. The rice and the flourmills were started way back in 1985 using the water and since then he never had to use fossil fuel. "I saved a lot of money on that," says Ap Namgay. Today Ap Namgay makes more than Nu 15,000 a year with fees collected from local farmers for milling charges. Last year he milled about 3.8 metric tonnes of rice and had 9.5 metric tonnes of oil extracted. Poor farmers, who cannot afford mills, are reaping the benefits. Some from as far as the Zomi geog come to him. "I charge half the price for milling and oil extraction than those charged by mills run on conventional fossil fuel," he says. Besides, he has also bought a power tiller which he uses for his paddy fields. He grows rice, wheat, and mustard seeds.

With a disarming smile which seems a natural extension of himself, Ap Namgay tells a story of how he stumbled upon the whole idea. In 1984, during one of the farmer study tours, he visited Chukha hydroproject corporation. "There I saw the force of water turning the turbine and producing electricity." He visited various other industries and agro-processing units. "It struck me then that the fundamental idea behind any mechanization is being able to turn and rotate wheels," he says. "I also saw that engines and motors are actually used to turn these wheels, which in turn are attached to various machines or parts to carry out a specific task." He was in his mid-twenties then.

After the tour, Ap Namgay was determined to try out what he saw. He immediately bought machinery parts like wheel, axle, belts, and a Kuboto dynamo from the Bajo agriculture machinery units and some from India. He invested about Nu 0.1 million in the project. With some parts carved from wood like the turbine, wheel for resting the belt and a conduit for water flow, Ap Namgay began his maiden experiment. Nobody helped him. "It was an instant success," he says. A researcher in Bajo agriculture research center says he has never seen a man, leave alone a farmer, who has quicker relationship between his eyes, brains and hands.

Agriculture officials there were not aware of Ap Namgay's innovations until one stumbled on him at his house "one fine day". They plan to replicate Ap Namgay's idea in the whole country. "Not bad" for a man who does not know how to read and write. Ap Namgay is the only child from his parents whose father died when he was only four years old. "I wanted to go to school so badly then," he recalls. "But there was no one to look after my mother and moreover there was our paddy fields to take care of." The dream of studying was alive even after his marriage. "But I guess education was not written on my fate," he says. "Sometimes I wish I was 20 years younger." For now, he plans to open up a sawmill using water as source of power.

It's another day in Shingchug, a small hamlet tucked away behind a row of paddy fields. Local children, their skin darkened from long days helping weed the paddies, splash around in muddy watering hole. Farmers go about their daily chores. For Ap Namgay Wangchuk, however, it is a new day for new hopes and new ideas.

This article was contributed by KUENSEL, Bhutan's National Newspaper 2004
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