Living in a poor village in Malawi, William Kamkwamba knew that something must be done to help improve the life in his village. So, at age 14, he taught himself how to build a windmill from junk just by reading books! Can you believe that?
He was just 14 years old when famine hit his hometown in Masitala Village, Wimbe. With the village too poor to begin with, it was one of the most difficult times for William and his family. Life was so harsh in 2001 due to the famine that the family’s farm didn’t produce anything and they were left hungry, with very little money to buy food.
At the time, William had already completed Wimbe Primary School and was accepted at Kachokolo secondary school. But his family could no longer pay the $80 in annual school fees, he had to quit school on his first year. The famine continued so that William wasn’t able to go back to school then.
But the young man didn’t think that learning is limited to the classroom. So, he went to the small community lending library located at his former primary school to educate himself.
There was a time when he borrowed an 8th-grade American textbook entitled “Using Energy”. It depicted wind turbines on the cover. Amazed by what he learned in the textbook, the young man decided to make a windmill to power his home.
Photo credit: Urban Intellectuals
The kerosene lamp they had at home could only light up a few feet – and kerosene is an expensive commodity at their village. Using parts from a radio motor, old shock absorber, tractor fan blade, blue gum trees, and a broken bicycle, he built his first windmill.
Then, William hooked the 5-meter windmill to a car battery to store the electricity. Even without formal education on how to build a windmill, the 14-year-old William was able to do it, complete with a circuit breaker he made from scratch using nails, wires, and magnets, plus homemade light switches!
With that, he was able to light four lightbulbs at home – and even let their neighbors charge their phones! Totally impressive.
Realizing that he could generate more electricity with more wind, he built a second windmill. It was 12 meters long and generated more power, as he correctly predicted. So, he went on to build a third windmill, this time to power the irrigation.
Applying what he learned from the windmill project, William was able to provide power for the six houses in his family compound.
He later learned how to harness solar power and was able to create a solar-powered pump that he put in a deep well to provide clean water. This was first used as his family’s farm but more were later built across the village. Soon, the village didn’t just have electricity, they also had clean water – all thanks to a teen who learned how to do it using books he borrowed from the library!
News of the village’s impressive windmills and solar-powered deep wells would draw thousands of visitors. One of these is Dr. Hartford Mchazime, the deputy director of the Malawian NGO responsible for the community library, MTTA. They were amazed that the little library was instrumental for the teen to achieve this impressive feat.
William was invited to make a presentation. This drew donors and partners for the village. The young man also received scholarship and was able to graduate from Dartmouth College in 2014. After graduation, he would become a Global Fellow for Ideo.org, working in community projects such as sanitation in India.
Here’s his story on TED: