William Kamkwamba is someone you may have heard of. The 29 year old Malawian is has made himself famous for his remarkable achievements and brilliant mind. Indeed, the young man has delivered inspiring TED talks, and his book, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is a New York Times Bestseller.
Hard times suggested a bleak future
Kamkwamba’s early life was difficult. Born in a poor rural community in Malawi, his family relied on farming for subsistence. In 2001, when he was just 13, a major famine swept through claimingthousands of lives and destroying entire communities. At the peak of this crisis, more than 70% of the nation’s farmers were considered at risk of starvation.
Food was so scarce that Kamkwamba parents would often go without a meal so that their children could eat.
For Kamkwamba, the disaster meant that his family could no longer afford to send him to school for five full years. As a natural and avid learner, he was devastated by his inability to attend class. However, determined to continue his education however he could, Kamkwamba immersed himself in books from a local lending library.
A mind that couldn’t be denied
Through the library, he developed a passion for engineering. He taught himself about circuitry, materials, and physics despite only having a basic understanding of English. In the aftermath of what he set up his own small business fixing people radios and other electrical appliances.
One book in particular called Using Energy, concerning wind turbines, became of particular interest. He was astounded to learn that wind energy could provide reliable electricity and power irrigation. As a result he vigorously studied the complex schematics, all the while considering how he could apply them in his own environment.A crude Kerosene-powered generator was the only source of energy his family possessed at that time. Since the engine was costly, expensive and unreliable Kamkwamba started by fashioning a prototype windmill form an old radio motor. Pleased with the results, he set about building his first real windmill, salvaging what he could from a scrap yard. He said, “Many people, including my mother, told me I was crazy.”
Undeterred, Kamkwamba created his windmill with an old bicycle, a dynamo, PVC pipes, the fan blades from a defunct tractor, and a shock absorber. He connected his contraption to a car battery so he could store the energy he harnessed. What’s more, he completely wired his own house to include switches and a circuit breaker.
John Collier, an Engineering Professor and advisor to Kamkwamba said, “To start with nothing and end up with a fully-fledged windmill that produces power is an extraordinary move – and to do it all with no tools except for some nails?”
Before long, local villagers were clamoring to charge their phones at Kamkwamba’s house; the only source of reliable power in the area. The news of his achievements spread across the country, and journalists came to visit. The national newspaper, The Malawi Daily Times wrote a long piece on Kamkwamba, as did Hacktivate blogger Mike McKay. The story came to the attention of Emeka Okafur, the Program Director of TEDGlobal. Fascinated by Kamkwamba’s story, Okafur invited him to TED as a fellow.
Before his talk at TED, Kamkwamba had already made some serious improvements to his system. He increased the diameter and height of his first windmill, which provided power to additional houses in his village. He also built a second windmill which powers a pump and an irrigation system.
An example for a generation
Upon attending TED, his story was incredibly well received. Inspired philanthropists in the audience became mentors and benefactors. The famous satirist and TED speaker Tom Reilly pledged to support Kamkwamba through seven years of school and university.
He was swiftly enrolled in the African Leadership Academy, a prestigious institution designed to rigorously prepare the talented students through academics, ethical leadership, entrepreneurialism and design. Kamkwamba then went on to study Engineering and Design at Dartmouth University, USA.
Since graduating in 2014 Kamkwamba has overseen numerous wind turbine installations throughout Malawi. He intends to use his education to continue solving problems his home country is facing with. His foundation, Moving Windmills, has already delivered numerous life changing development projects across the country.
Finally he wants to open an innovation centre to inspire the next generation of young leaders and entrepreneurs. Perhaps a quote from Kamkwamba’s own TED talk should adorn the walls: “Trust yourself and believe, whatever happens don’t give up.”