“While government might be moving at a retarded pygmy’s pace to search for alternative sources of electricity when signs are evident that Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi will not cope up with demand, a form 1 dropout in Kasungu has proved that it is possible…”
That was how Malawian local media The Daily Times, in 2006, began its reportage on the story of William Kamkwamba, a teenager who had dropped out of school but had taught himself how to build a windmill from junk to power his family’s home.
He learned this from books he read in the library, and soon the windmill of the young school dropout from a poor farming community garnered the attention of the nation and later international media and his fame skyrocketed. His life would also witness a dramatic change.
Born August 5, 1987, in Dowa, Malawi, Kamkwamba grew up on his family farm in Masitala Village, Wimbe, northeast of Malawi’s capital city.
The second eldest of seven children, Kamkwamba received primary education but was forced to drop out a few months into his first year in secondary school after a famine ravaged his village and his parents couldn’t afford his fees.
Dropping out of school in 2002, Kamkwamba, then 14, had nothing to do so he found an interest in reading science books from a community library.
One day, he came across two books, Using Energy and How it Works, which are about the generation of electricity using a windmill.
Working from rough plans he found in the book, Using Energy, he managed to make a small windmill using local tools which generated electricity enough to light his room. He then planned for a bigger one that will benefit his parents and with help from friends, he was able to get some of the materials he needed for that project.
“When I was making all these, some people were mocking me that I was going mad but I had confidence in what I was doing because I knew if it was written in the books then it was true and possible. When I succeeded they were impressed,” he told The Daily Times.
An article on Urban Intellectuals described how he went about making his windmill.
“First he built a prototype using a radio motor, then his initial 5-meter windmill out of a broken bicycle, tractor fan blade, old shock absorber, and blue gum trees.
“After hooking the windmill to a car battery for storage, William was able to power four light bulbs and charge neighbours’ mobile phones. This system was even equipped with homemade light switches and a circuit breaker made from nails, wire, and magnets. The windmill was later extended to 12 meters to better catch the wind above the trees. A third windmill pumped grey water for irrigation.”
Essentially, Kamkwamba was able to distribute some electricity to his parent’s house as his windmill powered four lights and two radios in the family home. Thanks to his invention, his parents were able to save money they initially had to use to purchase paraffin for their lamps.
“Darkness no longer forces us to go to bed earlier, we go to bed when we want. The light from the bulb is even better than from a paraffin lamp as it doesn’t produce smoke,” Kamkwamba said at the time.
“Some people also come with their batteries so that I can charge the batteries. I don’t know much energy goes into them but I know after charging they are able to use their battery listening to the radio for two weeks,” the self-taught inventor said in 2006.
News of his windmill project later received wide media coverage and organisations stepped in to support his dreams. Emeka Okafor, program director for TEDGlobal – a prestigious gathering of the world’s most innovative and influential speakers – searched for Kamkwamba and invited him to attend TEDGlobal on a fellowship.
During his presentation on January 11, 2011, Kamkwamba talked about his invention and his dreams of building a larger windmill to help with irrigation for his entire village, and to go back to school.
His presentation touched the hearts of many people and soon, with support from donors, companies, and organisations, including the TED community, Kamkwamba was able to go back to school and undertake additional projects.
His subsequent projects would be related to obtaining drinking water, malaria prevention, solar power and the lighting of six homes in his family compound. Others included deep water well with a solar pump to get clean water and the design of an irrigation system, as well as, the establishment of a football team “Wimbe United.”
Kamkwamba graduated from Dartmouth College in 2014 and worked at Ideo.org, an international human-centered organization that creates products, services, and experiences that improve the lives of people living in poverty.
There, he worked as a Global Fellow and this made him travel around the world, including India where he worked on a sanitation project and Kenya where he focused on gender-based violence prevention.
Today, Kamkwamba, 32, is also widely known for his autobiography The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind which was picked up by British actor of Nigerian origin Chiwetel Ejiofor to make a film.
The film, which is based on the book of the same name, is about the inspiring life of Kamkwamba. Oscar nominee and BAFTA winner Ejiofor said he was moved by the book and to get more details, he travelled to Malawi, spent more time with Kamkwamba and his family and friends and saw the village where Kamkwamba’s project began.
The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind, filmed in Malawi in 2017, debuted on Netflix in 2019 and across select theatres in the U.S. and the UK.