I was mesmerized as I listened to his speech at the TED Conference, there was something peculiar about his voice and style; although his words were embedded with some Malawian accent, yet, they were pointed and redolent of hope and courage.
William Kamkwamba was born in Dowa, Malawi, in 1987 and raised in Masitala village , Wimbe; two and half hours northeast of Malawi’s capital city along with his six sisters, born to sustenance farmers who grew maize and tobacco. His childhood was often interrupted by drought, hunger and pain.
Kamkwamba had his primary education at Wimbe Primary School, completing 8th grade and was then accepted to Kachokolo secondary school. The events of 2001 sprung surprises on the 14 year old, it was a terrible year, not just for Kamkwamba but for everyone in Malawi at the time, there was little or nothing to eat or drink, people began to die. The crippling famine forced Kamkwamba to drop out of school a few months into his freshman year, as his family lacked the funds to pay $80 in annual school fees. For five years, he was unable to go to school.
In a desperate attempt to retain his education, and as hunger clawed deeper into the village, claiming more lives, Kamkwamba found solace in the most unlikely place; the local library. And that was where his miracle happened, he fell deeply in love with science and began to visit the local library more frequently. On one of his visits, he stumbled on a book that changed his life forever; an 8th grade American textbook called ‘Using Energy’ which depicted wind turbines on its cover.
That was all the push the teenager needed, although he couldn’t read English well, with the use of diagrams and pictures, he set out to build his own windmill using scavenged parts from a local scrap yard to power his family’s home. First he built a prototype using a radio motor, and then his initial 5-meter windmill was made out of PVC pipe, a tractor fan, an old bicycle frame, and tree branches. Most people mocked him and concluded he had gone crazy, but the young man knew there was no need to explain his actions for truly only time will tell.
In his words; “Most of the materials for my windmill were found in the scrapyard of a nearby tobacco estate. This place was filled with abandoned cars and trucks just rusting in the sun, in addition to old water pumps, coil springs and other random metals. Unfortunately, the school where I’d dropped out was just across the road, and as I went exploring, my mates would tease me from the playground, calling out: “Ay, there goes William again, playing in the garbage!”
But where they saw garbage, I saw treasure and opportunity.
For example, I found a rusted tractor fan that was perfect for my rotor. I then discovered an old shock absorber. After banging it against a rock and knocking loose the metal casing, the piston inside made for a great shaft. For blades, I took plastic PVC pipe from my friend Gilbert’s bathhouse and cut it down the middle with a bow saw. I then held it over a small fire next to my mother’s kitchen until it began to melt and bubble. I quickly pressed the pipe flat, and then let it cool. After that, I used the saw to carve a set of four blades. For washers, I collected Carlsberg beer bottle caps outside the nearby Ofesi Boozing Centre, then pounded them flat and punched a hole through the middle.
I used my father’s broken bicycle as a frame, then welded the rotor, blades and shaft to the sprocket. When the wind blew, the blades acted as pedals and turned, causing the chain to spin the back wheel, where I’d attached a 12-volt bicycle dynamo (my most prized possession that took me months to find!). Wires ran from my dynamo down through my roof, where I’d attached a small bulb………………….”
Within six months, William had constructed a windmill that provided his family with continuous electricity and completely transformed the way they lived, and a second windmill pumped water for a family garden. Soon his house became a one stop spot for the entire village; he would wake up every morning to see a lineup of people in his front yard waiting patiently to use his facility.
This was an unbelievable experience for William, in a short time; Local news outlets discovered Kamkwamba, which led to a stage appearance at the TEDGlobal conference in Arusha, Tanzania. It was the first time he’d ever been on an airplane or seen the Internet. The appearance at TED, and a subsequent front-page feature in the Wall Street Journal sparked a flood of international aid, and soon William returned to school and completed much-needed improvements in his village farm, such as adding drip irrigation to shield his family against future drought. Soon Kamkwamba’s fame in international news skyrocketed.
He talks about his experience; “cues of people started lining up at my house to charge their phones, I could not get rid of them, and the reporters came too which led to bloggers and a call from TED, I had never seen an aeroplane before, I had never slept in a hotel room before, on stage that day in Arusha, my English lost. I said something like, “I tried and I made it.”
He finally re-enrolled in high school at Madisi secondary school where he spent one trimester, and then transferred to African Bible College Christian Academy, a private prep school in the capital city of Lilongwe. He completed his first full year back in school in June 2008. During summer 2008 he studied immersion English at Regents Language Institute in Cambridge, UK. William started as one of 97 inaugural students at the African Leadership Academy, a new pan-African prep school based outside of Johannesburg, South Africa whose mission is to educate the next generation with standard academics, ethical leadership training, entrepreneurship and design.
After graduating from the prestigious African Leadership Academy in 2010, Kamkwamba matriculated at Dartmouth College, where he is currently studying with plans to graduate in the spring of 2014. He recently completed a biography: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope with coauthor Bryan Mealer
Kamkwamba was a fellow at the prestigious TEDGlobal Conference in Arusha, Tanzania where he spoke briefly and spoke at the World Economic Forum Africa meeting in Cape Town, June 2008 where he keynoted the AMD-sponsored technology pre-conference, and spoke on a panel. He spoke at International CES in January, 2009, the grand opening of the African Leadership Academy in February, 2009, the Africa Economic Forum at Columbia University in March, 2009.
He had this to say; “With the windmill producing electricity, we could now read at night. Most of all, we didn’t have to rely on kerosene lamps that produced thick black smoke and sent my sisters into coughing fits. It also allowed neighbors from other villages to stop by and charge their mobile phones. When I’d wake up in the morning, I’d discover a line down the road. After a local newspaper learned about my windmill, my story attracted worldwide attention. With the assistance of generous well-wishers, I was soon able to return to school.”
The genius has built a solar-powered water pump that supplies the first drinking water in his village and two other windmills (the tallest standing at 39 feet) and is planning two more, including one in Lilongwe, the political capital of Malawi. He also experimented with building a radio transmitter to broadcast popular music interspersed with HIV prevention messages.
William is the subject of a documentary short film “Moving Windmills”, produced by Tom Rielly and directed and edited by Ari Kushnir and Scott Thrift which was selected as one of 50 films out of more than 2500 entries for Pangea Day, a worldwide film which took place May 10, 2008 in six cities around the world. The film won the North American Filmmaker’s Award from Participant Productions, producers of An Inconvenient Truth, Good Night and Good Luck and Charlie Wilson’s War.
As a way of encouraging the African youth he says; “In every country there are people doing projects just like this. There are many of us out there, and I’m convinced that if we could harness even a third of this talent and creativity, Africa wouldn’t have to rely so much on corrupt governments and international aid for assistance. Tapping our own creativity and energy, we can help transform Africa into a home for innovation, rather than charity, and a place of leaders instead of victims.
And to all the people like me, to the African and poor who are struggling with their dreams, God bless; may be one day you will watch this on the internet. Trust yourself and believe , whatever happens, don’t give up.”
Now you know what answer to give to the man who asks if any good thing can come from Africa.
kamkwamba was not born into wealth, he didn’t have good water, he went hungry for days, he didn’t even have education; yet he persevered. He did not wait for the perfect moment to actualise his dream, he simply took the moment and made it perfect. Now my friend, what is your excuse? Get up and get to work!