Catching the Wind in Rural Malawi

Innovator / by Maywa Montenegro /

With a tinkerer’s imagination and farmer’s grit, William Kamkwamba transformed junk into the beginning of one small town’s green energy revolution.

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Seed: What did the other villagers think you were doing with this scrap yard junk?
WK: When I started working on the windmill, people were laughing at me; they thought I was going crazy. It wasn’t normal for somebody to build a machine—especially a machine that people from my area don’t recognize. Also, I was going to a junkyard, collecting material. People put these two things together and thought that maybe I was smoking marijuana.

But once I managed to make the windmill I was very happy. It proved to people that what I was doing wasn’t something crazy—it was something useful. The same people started to appreciate what I did: They came with their mobile phones to charge them at my windmill.

What were the first things you did with this new electricity?
I put a light bulb in my room. It was such a great experience—I didn’t sleep! Normally I went to bed around 7 pm, but I stayed up late, just looking at my light bulb, lighting up everything. I thought, Wow. I am living like people in urban areas, where they have electricity. The next step was to put light bulbs in my parent’s house.

Seed: That’s incredible. So suddenly instead of going to bed at dusk, you could actually be productive—read and study—in the evening. Were you eventually able to return to school?
WK: I stayed home for four years. At the library, I continued checking out Using Energy—the book with the picture of the windmill. One day when I went to check it out, the librarian asked me, “Why are you always checking out the same book?” I explained to her that it was helping me build a windmill. She was interested and said she would come to my place to see it for herself. After she came and saw the windmill, she said she was going to tell her bosses—people from the Malawi Teacher Training Activity (MTTA). They were also interested, and after they came to see it, they said, “We are going to come again with some journalists.” And then the journalists wrote an article about the windmill and about me.

Then many things happened at once. The people of the MTTA started organizing to put me back in school. That was tough—no school wanted to place me on account of my old age and number of years I had been a drop out. But finally I was accepted at Madisi Secondary, a public boarding school an hour from my home. Though it wasn’t one of the science-oriented schools I had been hoping for, I was very happy to return to my studies.

Then someone in the capital city of Malawi saw the newspaper article and put it on his blog. When he did that, Emeka Okufar—who works at TED and was inviting people to attend the TED conference—saw it. Mr. Okafur tracked me down and invited me to attend TED Global in Arusha.

At the same conference, I met the founder of the African Leadership Academy, a school in Johannesburg. I applied and was accepted to his school. That’s where I am right now.

Seed: Your trip to Arusha for TED Global brought a lot of “firsts.”
WK: It was the first time I saw the internet, the first time I flew in an airplane, the first time I slept in a hotel—everything was the first time. When Tom Rielly, the community director of TED, showed me Google, the first thing I did was search “windmills.” I found more than 1 million designs and any kind of information I could have needed to build my windmill! I thought, wow, this is the big source for everything. If I had had this, I could have built my windmill much more easily.

Seed: But instead you did it with just a picture, some scrap yard junk, and a big idea. Which makes me think about an article I’ve just read: In the Guardian, John Vidal wrote: “Kamkwamba is presented to the west as the ‘humble hero,’ an extraordinary Malawian who has overcome everything to improve his family’s situation, but the reality is that most of Africa, India, and the developing world depends on equally innovative and inventive people coming up with ways to make a living with no cash and next to no resources.” Do you think poverty might have an ironic upside in that it forces ingenuity?
WK: If you have everything you need, like water and electricity, there’s no reason to go looking through garbage heaps like I did. Still, I don’t think that wealthier people are lazy; it’s just they have never had to survive. Having this problem makes you very creative.

Seed: Where do you plan to take your creativity in the future?
Right now I just want to finish my education. From there, I will see about jobs. I know I want to continue working on renewable energy. Apart from this, I’m also planning to design a machine that drills boreholes. Most people in my area have no access to clean water. There is water in the ground, but they lack a means of getting it. So I’m designing the machinery to drill boreholes, and I plan to use the power from the windmill to pump the water. Then people can start irrigation and have access to clean drinking water.

Seed: Have you visited any of the large wind projects in the US?
WK: Yes. I went to Palm Springs to see the big commercial windmills. It was amazing when I found out they were generating—about 600 megawatts. That’s more power than we use in all of Malawi.

Seed: Now that you have traveled around the world seeing giant wind farms, giant cities, and giant celebrities, is it hard to readjust to life in your home village?
WK: Yes…but not too bad. I’m in South Africa at school all the time and that’s a pretty modern place with internet and soccer games on television. Of course, I always like being home, but it’s impossible to compare America or the UK to my village. They are so different, and that’s why I love them. But I’m missing my home right now, especially my mother’s nsima and fish. My mother is a very good cook.

Read William Kamkwamba’s blog, see photos and videos of the windmill on Flickr, and follow him on Twitter at wkamkwamba. Front page photograph of windmill detail by Tom Rielly.

Originally published October 13, 2009

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Tags development energy engineering innovation

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