We can learn a lot from William’s story. His motivation was not publicity; he was never in it for the money. His desire is rooted in survival. The son of a farmer, William’s family earns sustenance from the land. When Malawi experienced its longest-ever drought, farmers were among the first to suffer. Death became a sweet escape. William just could not bear witness to his people’s suffering; he knew he needed to take action fast.
With help from relatives and friends (those who truly believed in him), William was able to collect scrap metals and Dynamos for his project. Despite the criticism he faced, even from his close relatives and neighbours, he pushed forward. William had no other choice but to try. Without trying, he would have to learn how to embrace the bitter truth of staying poor for the rest of life; worse, his children would inherit the same kind of life. Every time William felt discouraged, he imagined a life with electricity, and it took nothing more to fill his heart with hope once again.
William was born into a farming family in Masitala, Malawi, on 5 August 1987, to parents Trywell and Agnes. He was their second of seven children and only son. This, naturally, brought a great deal of responsibility upon him at home. His father had been converted to Christianity, and so William and all his sisters were raised in a Christian home.
William was naturally curious as a child - perhaps too curious for his own good. Often listening to the transistor radio, as it was his and his siblings’ only source of entertainment, William was dying to learn how it produced sound. He was convinced that tiny people were inside the radio, speaking and playing music. He believed so for a long time, until one day when he could no longer contain his curiosity and decided to find out for himself.
He managed to open the radio and, to his dismay, found nothing but wires and strange-looking objects. He made a hobby out of tinkering from then on, and it soon became apparent that he had a gift for building things. He went to Wimbe Primary school, where he finished 8th grade before being accepted to Kachokolo Secondary School.
William’s family is among the 98% of Malawi’s population without electricity; electric power is such a luxury in Malawi that only the top 2% of the population have access. Like most of the nation, the Kakwambas contented themselves with using kerosene lamps, although the dark smoke they emitted once caused one of William’s sisters to get sick.
How He Harnessed the Wind
William loved school, knowing it was his ticket out of poverty, and naturally became a hard worker. He had begun accepting radio repair jobs, as well, earning a living from his hobby. Although he was poor, he had all the hope in the world for a bright future ahead of him, made possible by education.
But that all changed in 2001 when a severe famine struck his beloved country. His family, as maize- and tobacco-growers, depended heavily on rain. When it did not rain for a stretch of time, they felt doomed; William saw his neighbours die of starvation. Food became the major priority, and so school was taken out of the picture.
With a heavy heart, William dropped out, as there was no way for his family to afford his yearly tuition. Nevertheless, William found a way to keep up with his classmates by borrowing books from a library not far from his school. Like electricity, books are also a luxury in Malawi; there is only one book for every five children, so schools must make do with what they can afford to provide.
As luck would have it, Hartford Mchazime of Malawi Teacher Training Activity - a non-government organization - chose to erect a library near his school and donate books from the International Book Bank:
"This library at my primary school was special. It was funded by USAID through American Institutes for Research and the International Book Bank, working with a local NGO called Malawi Teacher Training Activity. These were mostly donated books. Textbooks and a few novels. The library had three metal shelves and it smelled dusty inside. I thought it was wonderful. I began by checking out books that my friends in school were studying. Since I was dropping out of school, I wanted to still be on the same page as my friends." (SOURCE: TreeHugger)
Little did he know that his determination to learn would enable him to continue his studies. One day, while in the library, he stumbled upon “Using Energy and How it Works” by Mary Atwater. He was quite intrigued, being from a country where electricity is so scarce. He brought the book home and studied it as much as the kerosene lamp would allow. Although he knew little English, he tried his best to understand the instructions based on the diagrams provided.
That was when he discovered the magic of windmills. With only images to help him understand how they work, William had to rely on raw creativity. With no mentor to assist him and no one to explain how to go about his windmill project, he built one nevertheless, later pitching his idea to friends and cousins. Some of them scoffed and told him to “find better things to do” with his time. But not everyone was critical.
They helped him find possible materials to use. Because resources were hard to attain, they had to innovate. After several prototypes, William finally got it to work; for blades, he used PVC pipes that were heated and then flattened. For wires, he used scrap copper. Blue gum branches were used for the tower.
It took the group two months to finish the first windmill. His neighbours did not know what to make of William; some thought he’d lost his mind. Even his own mother doubted his sanity. Imagine her relief when the windmill worked for the first time! After powering a light bulb, further improvements were made to the first model until it was able to power lights and radios, and even charge cell phones. His detractors became supporters, and word soon got out about his invention.
Becoming a TED Speaker
After returning “Using Energy and How it Works,” the librarian went with William to see his windmill first-hand and some journalists even took photos. A write-up by a local newspaper then sparked the public’s interest in the 14-year-old inventor. He met Hartford Mchazime, president of MTTA, who eventually became one of his mentors. He also found a friend in Bryan Mealer, a journalist who is well-known for his stories in Africa. William’s perseverance certainly made great writing material!
With the help of Hartford Mchazime, William was able to continue his studies at the African Bible College Christian Academy in Lilongwe. He was then selected as a scholar of the African Leadership Academy and became one of its pilot beneficiaries. He went on to enrol at Dartmouth College, a “Mecca for engineering students” as it is equipped with every type of modern equipment a builder could dream of.
All of this was made possible upon receiving international recognition through his TED interview with Tom Rielly, who was so inspired by William’s story that he produced a documentary with Ben Nabors entitled “William and the Windmill.”
The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind
Not long after, Bryan Mealer helped him write his autobiography, “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope.” The book sold well and motivated many, especially in minority populations, to make something of themselves. When William again spoke at TED, he was much more confident; he urged the youth to never give up when faced with seemingly-huge challenges.
He is now part of Moving Windmills, which aims to support:
"… Malawian-run rural economic development and education projects in Malawi, with the goals of community economic independence and self-sustainability; food, water and health security; and educational success. Moving Windmills Project is inspired by the story of William Kamkwamba, a remarkable young man from a remote village north of Malawi’s capital city. Forced to drop out of school due to lack of funds, William turned to self-education and, after seeing a picture of a windmill in a textbook, decided to build one to power his family’s home." (SOURCE: Moving Windmills)
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- Moving Windmills
Awards and Achievements
- 2002: Built a windmill at 14 years old
- 2007: Spoke at TED Global
- 2007: Profiled on the front page of The Wall Street Journal
- 2008: Keynote Speaker at the AMD-sponsored technology pre-conference
- 2008: Featured in “Fast Forward: Inventing the Future”
- 2009: Took part in “Maker Faire Africa” in Ghana
- 2009: Spoke at the Grand Opening of the African Leadership Academy
- 2009: Spoke at the “Africa Economic Forum” at Columbia University
- 2009: Spoke at “Maker Faire Africa” and “Science Chicago”
- 2009: Interviewed on The Daily Show
- 2009: Spoke at International CES
- 2009: Published his autobiography, “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope”
- 2011: Guest speaker at Google Science Fair introductory meeting
- 2013: "The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind" was selected by the Loudoun County, Virginia's Public Library system as the "1 Book, 1 Community" title
- 2013: “William and the Windmill” won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary Feature
- 2013: Named one of the "30 People Under 30 Changing The World" by TIME Magazine
- Received scholarship to the African Leadership Academy
Wikipedia (William Kamkwamba)
William Kamkwamba (About)
The Daily Ties (School dropout with a streak genius)
TED Talks (William Kamkwamba: How I built a windmill)
Moving Windmills (William’s Story)
Britdoc.org (Moving Windmills: The William Kamkwamba Story)
SmartPlay (An Update on William Kamkwamba, the Boy Who Harnessed the Wind)
TreeHugger (The World's DIY Hero: An Interview With William Kamkwamba, Windmill Wunderkind)
FRTV (TedxSMU Backstage Interviews: William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer)
Dartmouth Alumni Magazine (The Power of One)
User Generated Education (Real Life Education ala William Kamkwamba)
The My Hero Project (William Kamkwamba)
Wired (Teen's DIY Energy Hacking Gives African Village New Hope)