Teen’s DIY Energy Hacking Gives African Village New Hope

(Wired Science) Some people see lemons and make lemonade. William Kamkwamba saw wind and made a windmill.

This might not seem like a mighty feat. But Kamkwamba, who grew up in Masitala, a tiny rural farming village off the grid in Malawi, was 14 years old in 2001 when he spotted a photo of a windmill in a U.S. textbook one day. He decided to make one, hacking together a contraption from strips of PVC pipe, rusty car and bicycle parts and blue gum trees.

Though he ultimately had big designs for his creation, all he really wanted to do initially was power a small bulb in his bedroom so he could stay up and read past sunset.

But one windmill has turned into three, which now generate enough electricity to light several bulbs in his family’s house, power radios and a TV, charge his neighbors’ cellphones and pump water for the village’s fields and household use.

Now 22, Kamkwamba wants to build windmills across Malawi and perhaps beyond. Next summer he also plans to construct a drilling machine to bore 40-meter holes for water and pumps. His aim is to help Africans become self-sufficient and resolve their problems without reliance on foreign aid.

“The problem we have is electricity and water problems,” he says. “I want to be tackling all of them at once.”

In a country steeped in superstition and wracked by crushing hardship and government corruption, Kamkwamba’s story is remarkable for its ingenuity and persistence.

Kamkwamba wasn’t a natural-born over-achiever. Before windmills, his biggest ambition was to be a car mechanic. But when he was ejected from public school at 14 because his family couldn’t afford the $80 tuition, his life seemed destined for the planting fields and back-breaking labor of his father, an impoverished maize and tobacco grower. Even that fate fell into question when drought and severe famine struck Malawi, one of Africa’s poorest nations, in 2001 and 2002. It whittled away at Kamkwamba’s already thin frame and killed off neighbors and friends, which he recounts with journalist Bryan Mealer in an engaging and spirited new book, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.


Rain and crops slowly returned the following season, but Kamkwamba still couldn’t afford tuition. So with time on his hands, he began visiting a rural library where he found two textbooks — Explaining Physics and Using Energy — that detailed the marvels of electricity. The cover of the latter book featured a long row of towering windmills planted on brown hills, which “appeared so powerful that they made the photo itself appear to be in motion.”

Malawi was short on many resources, but not wind. A windmill, Kamkwamba thought, would solve many problems for his parents and six sisters. Not only could it generate free electricity — saving his family the economic costs and health hazards of burning kerosene — but it could also pump deep well water to the family’s maize and tobacco crops, releasing them from the tyranny of weather patterns and allowing them to add a second growing season to their harvest year.

“With a windmill, I could stay awake at night reading instead of going to bed at seven with the rest of Malawi,” he writes. But more importantly, “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.”

He started with a small prototype. Then, with help from a cousin and friend, spent many weeks scrounging makeshift parts to construct the real thing.

The plan was to attach blades to the back axle of a bicycle and generate electricity through a bike dynamo. When the wind blew the blades, the sprocket and bike chain would spin the bike wheel, which would charge the dynamo and send a current through wire to the house.

For windmill blades, Kamkwamba slit a bathhouse PVC pipe in two, then heated the pieces over hot coals to press the curled edges flat. To bore holes into the blades, he stuck a nail through half a corn cob, heated the metal red and twisted it through the blades. It took three hours to repeatedly heat the nail and bore the needed holes.


He then attached the long plastic blades to the shorter metal blades of a large tractor fan found in a dumpyard, and stripped out the piston from a large shock absorber to serve as the windmill shaft. To secure the plastic blades to the metal ones, he used proper nuts and bolts. But standing in for washers were 16 Carlsberg beer bottle caps, collected from outside the Ofesi Boozing Centre.

The dynamo, connected to a hand-crafted transformer, was sufficient to power a 12-volt battery that fed a current to a small light in his bedroom, where he fashioned an outlet and push button wall switch using the AC socket from a radio, copper wire, a plastic wall mount made from flattened PVC pipe and parts from a rubber flip-flop.

When it was all done, the windmill’s wing span measured more than eight feet and sat atop a rickety tower 15 feet tall that swayed violently in strong gales. He eventually replaced the tower with a sturdier one that stands 39 feet.

The windmill brought Kamkwamba instant local fame. Villagers who called him a pot-smoking madman when he was scrounging for parts made pilgrimages to marvel at the wind shrine in action. But in 2006 when the maize crop failed and drought and famine were on the horizon again, some blamed his windmill witchcraft for blowing away the rainclouds. The talk only died down after the government and aid groups began distributing food.

Despite Kamkwamba’s accomplishment, he still was unable to return to school because of the cost. But this began to change in late 2006. An education official who’d heard about the windmill came to visit and was amazed to learn that Kamkwamba had been out of school for five years. He arranged for Kamkwamba to attend secondary school at the government’s expense and brought journalists to the farm to see the windmill. A story published in the Malawi Daily Mail caught the attention of bloggers, which in turn caught the attention of organizers for the Technology Entertainment and Design conference.

In 2007 Kamkwamba spoke at the TED Global conference in Tanzania and got a standing ovation. Venture capitalists stepped forward with offers to fund his education and projects, and with money donated by them, he was able to put his cousin and several friends back into school, pay for some medical needs of his family, drill a borehole for a well and water pump, and install drip irrigation in his father’s fields and solar panels on his and other homes in the 60-family village.

The water pump has allowed his family to expand its crops. They’ve abandoned tobacco and now grow maize, beans, soybeans, potatoes and peanuts.

The windmills have also brought big lifestyle and health changes to the other villagers.

“The village has changed a lot,” Kamkwamba says. “Now the time that they would spend going to fetch water, they are using that time for doing other things. And also the water they are drinking now is clean water.”

The villagers have also stopped using kerosene, which means they no longer breathe in the toxic fumes and can use the money previously slated for fuel to buy other things. Kamkwamba’s example has now inspired other kids in the village to pursue science. Where previously they had no futures, Kamkwamba says they now see that if they put their mind to something, they can achieve.

“It has changed the way people think,” he says.

Kamkwamba is moving forward with his own education now and plans to teach other villagers how to build windmills. He’s currently a senior in high school at the African Leadership Academy, a pan-African prep school in Johannesburg, South Africa, and is studying for his SATs to apply to colleges in the United States. A documentary about his achievements is in the works.