Global Education

Malawi student harnesses wind to power community

By Justin Quinn
Published: October 2009

In the African nation of Malawi, known most for its extreme poverty, a young man has gained media attention for a positive advance to a better future: William Kamkwamba discovered how to power his village with wind power.

Kamkwamba, now 22 years old, recently chronicled his accounts in a book he co-wrote with Bryan Mealer, a nonfiction author, called The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, but his story started when he was only 14.

Kamkwamba was forced to drop out of school when the drought and famine that plagued the area prevented his family from affording the $80 school fee. The long-lasting drought in Malawi left his father, a farmer, and many others like him without a source of money.

With nowhere else to turn, Kamkwamba began to read and study in a small local library. Out of all the subjects he read about, windmills caught his eye the most.

“I wanted to do something to help and change things. Then I said to myself, ‘ËœIf they can make electricity out of wind, I can try, too. I thought, this thing exists in this book, it means someone else managed to build this machine, Kamkwamba said.

With this vision in mind, the ambitious student tried to find out everything he could about windmills. Kamkwamba would collect old car and bike parts, pipes, and other discarded items to build his first windmill.

“People in my village said I was crazy. They said, ‘ËœI think you are smoking marijuana too much,’ Kamkwamba said. But these negative comments would not deter him from his goal.

“I wanted to finish it just to prove them wrong. I knew people would then stop thinking I was crazy, he said.

The first windmill took three months to construct and could only power a single light bulb. Now, Kamkwamba has constructed five windmills, used for pumping water and providing electricity to power cell phones and radios. The tallest one stands at 37 feet.

People come from all around to use the electricity and to learn how to build a windmill themselves. Kamkwamba built a windmill at a school in the area to teach others to construct and use them.

Although his windmills gave him immediate attention from the people of the region, it took four years for people and media outside of Malawi to take notice of this outstanding innovation.

Since then, he has gained media attention worldwide, leading to his book The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind being published and released on September 29. He has been traveling the world, spreading his story and even appearing on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

Malawi has frequently appeared in the media over the past few years because of singer Madonna’s involvement in the area.

While help from her and other outside sources helped the population, it is important to realize the creativity and innovation coming from inside the country as well.

“William Kamkwamba’s achievements with wind energy should serve as a model of what one person, with an inspired idea, can do to tackle the crisis we face, former Vice President and Nobel Laureate Al Gore said.

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