After 30 years as an electrical engineer, Jon Coker is now taking his talents to the Congo for a project that could save lives
With a career that’s included IBM, HGST (a Western Digital company), and Mayo Clinic, he has spent most of his life solving problems in the white-collar world, where the environment trends toward sterile. And then, after work, he would go back to his home in Rochester, comfortable.
And yet here he was in 2013, bumping along in a truck on a crowded street in the Democratic Republic of Congo, with his eldest son, Drew, preparing to tackle a challenge that involved engineering, communication, and doing good.
“The roads were packed with people walking, old Toyotas, and smoke from fire barrels,” says Drew. “After such a long flight, it was nearly surreal.”
The challenge that brought them halfway around the world sounds like a story problem in a standardized test:
A hydroelectric power line—which supplies electricity to a hospital seven miles away, in one of the poorest provinces in one of the poorest countries in the world—hasn’t worked very well in 15 years. And in the Congo—a country where one out of every five kids dies before age 5, where villages often lack basic necessities—every hospital is important.
How do you repair it?
There are no technical standards for power line replacement materials in a region full of snakes, war and, oh yes, lightning strikes. The Congo is the densest region in the world for lightning strikes, with an estimated 400 strikes per square mile per year (Minnesota gets roughly four per square mile per year).
Ready, set, go!
From Rochester to Karawa, Democratic Republic of Congo, and two side trips to China, Jon Coker’s tale of offering expertise and leadership can be boiled down to his interest in providing help.
It all started at church—Rochester Covenant Church—where Coker previously attended.
Pastor Herb Frost says Coker was ideally suited for this role to help others.
“Jon has the rare combination of intellect, creativity, and compassionate heart that made the needs at Karawa and Jon’s capacity a match made in heaven,” Frost says. “Jon’s genius in problem-solving brought him to mind immediately when I first saw the dam at Zulu and heard of the engineering challenges. Jon’s love for God expressed in help for God’s people was already in evidence and this was a logical extension of that love.”
Coker’s more modest about it.
“I heard someone needed help and I could spell electrical,” Coker jokes as he begins telling his story on an overcast December afternoon. It’s the story about
African savannah trying to figure out how to patch up an ailing electric transmission line from a hydroelectric dam that provides a lifeline to a hospital. “It’s been a blessing for both of us,” he says.
“It’s the poorest nation in the poorest province,” he says. “They’re incredibly smart and make life with almost nothing, but the margins are so tight that they can die. That’s where the hospital comes in.”
The first trip
Jon and his son, Drew, ventured to the Congo for the first time in September of 2013 with optimism that one trip would be all that was needed. But optimism often comes from not knowing.
Drew, an electrical engineering graduate from the South Dakota School of Mines, works as an electrical engineer at the Georgia Tech Research Institute in Atlanta. He describes that first flight across Africa—flying above the savannah in a Pilatus PC12, a nine-passenger single engine turboprop aircraft, as a “bit of a pinch-me moment.”
“The view from the plane (from Kinshasa to Gemena) was more what I expected to see in Africa,” Drew says. “Beautiful rolling hills, tall trees, and winding rivers. I had to stop myself from humming ‘The Lion King’ intro.”
By happenstance, there was another Rochester guy on the plane, Garth Pederson, a pilot who flies for Mission Aviation Fellowship. In fact, Pederson and Coker attend the same church in Rochester, Calvary Evangelical Free Church, but had never met until Jon and Drew arrived in Kinsasha.
It’s 535 nautical miles from Kinshasa, which is the capital, to Karawa, and that takes about two and a half hours to fly. There are no roads connecting the two. The only other travel option would require taking a boat about 400 miles up the Congo River then traveling by land the rest of the way.
Pederson has flown for various groups including the Paul Carlson Partnership, which provides funding for Coker’s project. The partnership is named after Dr. Paul Carlson, a missionary with the Evangelical Covenant Church who was killed while serving in Congo in 1964. The partnership was created in his honor to continue his work.
On that first visit, they wasted no time in assessing the situation, while also working with a language barrier and the knowledge that they had lots to learn.
The cable was buried in a basic trench.
“My hope is we’d be able to fix things up with some duct tape and head home,” Coker jokes now. “We took equipment measurements and thought we’d find 15 to 20 places failing. We determined that there were hundreds of leaks. The line was too old.”
The buried cable had leaks so innumerable that they quit counting. They’d dig up a spot, repair it and have a moment of hope before it went kaput. It became apparent why there were tales of surgeons trying to operate with the lights of cell phones.
The visit was instructive, but the challenge became apparent.
“Any project like this is very challenging in Congo because of the unique problems: Isolation, logistics, difficulty with government importation and permissions, etc. Lightning capital of the world, language barriers, cultural differences,” Pederson says. “But like many of these projects, it is a team effort whereby people and organizations partner to accomplish great things with a synergy that would not otherwise be possible. Jon demonstrates many attributes that are necessary for survival in this kind of project: intelligence, commitment, humility and flexibility. He has also given freely of his time and financial resources.”
Life is timing
Sometimes life’s pieces fall into place even if it seems like there’s not a plan. Coker’s timing seemed to be perfect. He had completed a Ph.D. in electrical engineering at the University of Minnesota several years prior and was wrapping up his work in
2014 with HGST, a Western Digital company, where he’d worked for more than six years. Couple that experience with 17 years at IBM, six years as an engineering supervisor at Mayo Clinic, and he brought a wealth of electrical engineering skills with him.
The Congo power line repair project would, he soon learned, require those skills, and much more. Power line expertise is a different element, but Coker brought a collaborative spirit to seek his answers when his own problem-solving efforts didn’t yield a clear answer.
“I’m not a power engineer, and it wasn’t fixable as is,” Coker says. “So I created a small group of engineers. We had people in Germany, Congo, Rochester, the U.S., all helping with technical aspects.”
In many locales there’s a “menu” of sorts that helps guide power line installation based on its geography, climate, soil makeup, and even lightning history.
But here, there’s not a menu.
His efforts on the ground brought admiration from his son, Drew.
“He is a fantastic communicator, even across a wide language barrier,” Drew says. “Going in, we had a few ideas of what should be done and how. Some of these ideas needed a considerable amount of on-the-ground rethinking. The local technicians and engineers (who would put MacGyver to shame) were a tremendous resource. My dad put forward ideas and Socratically negotiated the debate between all parties. Things were decided quickly and efficiently, and a lot of good work
It was also a time for father and son to share a unique adventure.
Just as Jon was wrapping up work and looking to make a possible transition into teaching in college, his wife Kay had a stroke.
“It was a blessing that I was finishing up work and I could be home during this time,” Jon says. “Drew was in the air to Rochester so we could take our second trip to Karawa when Kay had her stroke, but obviously we postponed that trip. It was a blessing to have Drew with us for that first couple of weeks.”
The care for Kay took precedence, but the project provided asides that served as needed respites. So while the project didn’t proceed quickly, it was not stalling.
Today, Jon is philosophical about Kay’s recovery, which is improving and providing them all with optimism.
“Yes, the recovery is continuing on a (generally) positive path,” he says. “There is a lot of work yet to do. Much like the project.”
Coker and his group wrestled with the best option for the region, which provides challenges that range from lightning deflection to grounding the line. In the end, they went with an aboveground electrical line with hard plastic poles. The poles were manufactured in China, which necessitated two trips there to ensure that the work was done to specifications and to ensure everything was shipped.
“We could have just buried new cable and done what they had in the past, but that would have been very expensive,” Coker says. “We went with the option that is responsible to the donors and does what needs to be done.”
Jon and Drew have plans for future mission trips. They hope to mark completion of the $150,000 power line project later
this year. And while much of the actual work, at this point, will be completed by the locals, Jon and Drew are still focused on the challenges ahead.
“I’m appreciative of the chance to do it,” Jon says. “It’s been a blessing for me.”