Alternative Energy

Published on September 30th, 2009 | by Derek Markham


Harnessing the Wind with Junk: Malawian Wind Inventor William Kamkwamba

A 14 year old Malawian boy with a meager education became a hero for many in his remote rural village when he crafted a working windmill out of a tractor fan blade, a broken bicycle, an old shock absorber, and some blue gum trees. His invention wasn’t the product of following one of the many DIY plans found online, but rather an incredible example of innovation and drive, because his electricity generating device was built using information found in an 8th grade American textbook called Using Energy, which he found in his local community library.

Image: whiteafricanWilliam Kamkwamba's Windmill

William Kamkwamba's Windmill

The boy is named William Kamkwamba, and his story has now been told to huge audiences through the TED talks. He’s also co-written a book chronicling his experiences, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope, which has now been published. Not bad for a boy who lived through a severe famine and wasn’t able to go to school for five years due to lack of funds.

“With a windmill, we’d finally release ourselves from the troubles of darkness and hunger. A windmill meant more than just power, it was freedom.” – Kamkwamba

His first windmill, connected to an automobile battery for storage, powered just four light bulbs and was able to charge the villagers cell phones. He built homemade light switches and circuit breakers for his device as well, and built another higher windmill to better harness the ‘electric wind’, as he called it. Kamkwamba then built a third windmill to pump gray water for irrigation, and a radio transmitter made from broken radio cassette tape players to broadcast both music and HIV prevention messages.


“To encourage myself, I would look at the picture of the windmill in the book, and I would tell myself, “Somewhere, someone did this thing. If somebody did this thing, I can also do it.” Even then, with people saying I was crazy, I’d say, “OK, say what you’re going to say, but I’m still going to do this thing.” I would not accept to stop doing this thing because of what people were saying.” – TED interview

Since his initial windmill success, Kamkwamba’s projects have included a deep water well with a solar powered pump for clean water, a drip irrigation system, and solar powered electricity and lighting for homes in his family compound. He’s also the inspiration for the Moving Windmills Project, which supports Malawian-run rural economic development and education projects in Malawi, aiming for community economic independence and self-sustainability in the areas of food, water, health security, and educational success.

Now studying to be an electrical engineer in South Africa, William Kamkwamba can also be found on Twitter.

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About the Author

lives in southwestern New Mexico and digs bicycles, simple living, organic gardening, sustainable lifestyle design, slacklining, bouldering, and permaculture. He loves good food, with fresh roasted chiles at the top of his list of favorites. Catch up with Derek on Twitter, RebelMouse, Google+, or at his natural parenting site, Natural Papa!

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