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FABA (For Africa By Africans): Kamkwamba's Windmills

By AfSB Staff

(A column highlighting scientific, technological, engineering, and design innovation in Africa)

In 2002, at just 14 years old, William Kamkwamba built an electricity-generating windmill to power his family home in rural Malawi. Before that, he had set up a business repairing radios but the business generated too little income to help meet the family’s needs.

Forced to drop out of school when his parents could no longer afford to pay his annual fees of about $80, Kamkwamba began to frequent the school library. Pictures of a windmill in a book about renewable energy inspired him to build one of his own. He gathered odds and ends from the junkyard across the street form his school, including bicycle wheels, PVC pipe, bottle caps, and a tractor propeller. After two months working from rough plans he found in the library book, during which time he was ridiculed by his former classmates as “crazy,” he managed to cobble the junkyard scrap, rubber from old flip-flops, and the trunks of blue gum trees, into a 16-foot tall structure.

Kamkwamba hooked up a light bulb at the top of the structure and sure enough, a gust of wind set the bicycle wheels turning, which in turn, caused the bulb to glow. In no time he had wired the family home and added a circuit breaker, step-up transformer and battery. The electricity-generated windmill he built (pictured above) not only powered four lamps and two radios in his home, but it also charged the cell phones of locals, who lined up for the privilege.   

A talk at TEDGlobal in 2007 garnered him mentoring to enhance his innovation, as well as financing and scholarships for his secondary and college education. He added a second windmill, solar panels, bright lighting, a deep water well with a solar-powered pump for clean water, and a drip irrigation system to his family compound. In 2008 he co-founded the Moving Windmills Project, which works with local leaders in Malawi to determine, organize, and implement the appropriate solutions to provide the local community with food, clothing, shelter, sanitation, health, education, clean water, and a strong sense of community.

 In 2014, Kamkwamba, an honor student, graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, U.S.A. Today, he is a world-renowned engineer, innovator and author. His book, The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind, is required reading at the University of Florida, auburn University, and the University of Michigan College of Engineering. The documentary film, William and the Windmill, won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary Feature at the 2013 South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas.


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