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High-powered Ambition

With a sense of moral obligation, Francis Mills (McC01) helps light up developing nations.


by Sean Hargadon

Francis Mills helps provide reliable and sustainable power to parts of the developing world, a job that requires a unique set of skills and entitles him to danger pay. 

Mills (McC01) is an electrification engineer with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association International, a nonprofit that has provided electricity to 75 million people in more than 40 developing countries since 1962. In the past year he worked in Bangladesh, Uganda, Kenya and, most recently, Sudan.

“These are wild but optimistic times in southern Sudan,” Mills said shortly after returning from the African nation last winter. Sudan is coming out of a violent 20-year civil war, and in the newly autonomous south the post-conflict rules are not quite clear.

“There are still people running around in the bush with guns. I see 13-year-olds with Kalashnikovs,” Mills says. “It’s not ideal circumstances to develop a fully functioning society, but there’s an attitude of change.”

As an electrification engineer, Mills works with local technicians and national ministers on infrastructure improvement and capacity building. This spring he worked on construction and installation of electric wires and poles in Yei, a key trading center in southern Sudan’s booming rehabilitation. In Juba, the isolated capital city of the emerging nation, Mills helped organize a seminar with the south’s political leadership to hash out the country’s fundamental electricity policy.

Globally, there is a remarkable demand for electricity — almost half the world’s population lacks reliable access, according to a 2007 report from the World Bank and the U.N. Development Program. In sub-Saharan Africa less than 5 percent of all rural people have electricity access. The numbers are even worse in southern Sudan. Currently households that can afford electricity are limited to those with gasoline or diesel generators.

“I remember one night in Juba, I drove around after sundown. I heard more than 100 separate generators running off in the distance before I stopped counting,” Mills says. “Fossil fuel generation is the only thing that’s currently affordable. Through my career I hope to change that fact. I’m looking for a utility-scale solution.”

He has the training and experience to start. Armed with a mechanical engineering degree, Mills left Northwestern with an aim to work in three settings — the private sector, academia and nonprofit settings.

First, he spent some time at the product design firm IDEO in its Boulder, Colo., studio, then won a Fulbright to study and teach at the Technical University of Munich.

When he returned to his hometown outside of Lansing, Mich., he dropped in on his high school mentor, John Thon, and the two developed a junior high engineering and design curriculum for Thon’s seventh-grade class.

While teaching with Thon, Mills staged his entry into international development. He volunteered at the headquarters of Engineers for a Sustainable World in Ithaca, N.Y., then spent summer 2004 in Dakar, Senegal, managing a project to make solar ovens more affordable. Then Mills earned his master’s in engineering for sustainable development from the University of Cambridge.

Given Mills’ education and experience, Thon believes his former protégé will thrive in international development. He’s tenacious and incredibly smart, Thon says. He’s sensitive to other cultures, and he’s blessed with incredibly clear thinking. “He has a way of sorting out your head for you,” Thon says. “If you have 1,000 ideas, he draws them out with some incredible questioning insights. He can then respond with an opinion that summarizes it all for you but better than you could ever say it yourself.”

Most of all, Mills is passionate about his work and its challenges. “I once believed I’d happily live out my years designing the latest consumer electronic products,” he says. “But I eventually realized the more urgent need of sustainable services for the world’s rural poor. Unfortunately, too few engineers are prepared for the work that I now find so rewarding.

“If you are uniquely suited to do something, do you have a moral obligation to do it? I’d say yes.”

Sean Hargadon is senior editor of Northwestern magazine.
Francis Mills visits the home of a Sudanese friend in Juba.
Francis Mills visits the home of a Sudanese friend in Juba.
Along the road between Yei and Juba, Mills discovered an abandoned tank.
Along the road between Yei and Juba, Mills discovered an abandoned tank.