Odd Hoftun, missionary engineerNorwegian who devoted his life to making Nepal self-reliant in energy dies at age 95
Odd Hoftun, the Norwegian who came to build a mission hospital in Nepal in 1958 and stayed on to develop the country's hydropower died in Norway at age 95 on 14 March.
Hoftun first came to Nepal to work for United Mission Nepal (UMN) and its hospital in Tansen, which the organisation is still running and is a model for community medicine in rural Nepal.
He devoted his life to developing Nepal’s indigenous capacity to harness water resources and established Butwal Power Company (BPC) which worked on successively larger hydroelectric projects like Tinau, Andhi Khola, Jhimruk.
Today, BPC is part of a larger consortium of joint Nepali-Norwegian energy companies that built the Khimti project. And it was this step-by-step growth of engineering and energy capacity that Hoftun envisioned 50 years ago: to make Nepal self-reliant, to spread the risk, and take on ever larger projects as the technical capacity of Nepali engineers improved.
"Now you just need to fix your politics, you need a new generation of technocrat politicians to take charge and move forward," Hoftun told Nepali Times in Oslo in 2009 at the launch of his biography, Kraftverket (The Hydropowerplant) which has now been translated into English.
Hoftun’s life in Nepal had its tragic side: the loss of his anthropologist son Martin in the crash of a Thai International flight from Bangkok to Kathmandu in 1992. He helped set up the research centre, Martin Chautari, to honour his son. The centre still holds regular discussions on the social sciences, media, education and policy issues.
Hoftun was a keen observer of Nepali society, and says in his book that it was evident even when he first arrived that conflict was inevitable. 'Nepal was an innocent society in those days, but the injustice, the discrimination of the caste system were glaring. It was the neglect of these issues that ultimately led to the upheavals of the 1990s,' he recalled.
A modest and self-effacing man with a frugal lifestyle, Hoftun shunned interviews and avoided the media. He was also an ardent follower of the principle of 'small is beautiful' and appropriate technology.
He believed in a ‘bottom-up approach’ of empowering rural areas first. But Hoftun was always careful to stress that not all big is bad, and that a country and society have to be ready for big projects and make sure the benefits are distributed equitably while supporting national development.
You can have a network of small hydro plants but, he used to say, for national-level planning and economies of scale there have to be big hydropower projects too.
He also thought power export to India was necessary to reduce Nepal’s trade deficit, but advised Nepal to build its own industrial base at the same time.
His father was an engineer, and he was born in 1927 in rural Norway to a religious family that taught him early on to care for the underprivileged. He felt it was his manifest destiny to go to Nepal at a time when the country was just opening up to the outside world.
He stayed in Nepal for over 50 years, and was involved in setting up many projects, many of them in energy: Butwal Technical Institute (1964), Tinau Hydropower (1966), Butwal Power Company (1965), Development and Consulting Services (1972), Gobar Gas Company (1978), Andhikhola Hydropower and Rural Electrification (1982), Himal Hydro (1978), Jhimruk Hydropower (1992), Hydro Lab, Himal Power (1992).
In a review of Hoftun's biography, engineer Bhola Shrestha wrote in Nepali Times in 2016:
'Hoftun was a pioneer and overcame many obstacles: his own colleagues had a different development philosophy, Nepali trainees misunderstood him, there were many technical challenges in building the first hydropower tunnel in Nepal, and the chronic lack of funds. The Hoftuns also raised a family without the facilities and comforts of home. Their second child Martin, was born in Tansen and after a complication in delivery later developed a physical disability.'