In 2001, William Kamkwamba was like most teenagers. He had just graduated eighth grade and had been accepted into secondary school in his community in Malawi.
But William’s education was interrupted when a devastating famine brought his family’s farm to ruin and left his parents unable to pay $80 for his annual school fees. He was forced to drop out of school a few months into his freshman year of secondary school, but William remained motivated to continue learning.
He started borrowing books from a small community lending library at his former primary school. One of the books was an eighth-grade American textbook called Using Energy – and the call to action began. It was subtle. And at 14 he might not have even realised the incredible precipice he was perched on. But he followed the call.
Completely self-taught, William built a windmill to power his family’s home and obviate the need for kerosene, which provided only smoky, flickering, distant and expensive light after dark. He built a prototype using a radio motor, then he made his initial five-meter windmill out of a broken bicycle, tractor fan blade, old shock absorber, and blue gum trees. After hooking the windmill to a car battery for storage, William was able to power four light bulbs and charge neighbours’ mobile phones. He even equipped his system with homemade light switches and a circuit breaker made from nails, wire, and magnets. He later extended the windmill to 12 meters to better catch the wind above the trees, and he created a third windmill to pump grey water for irrigation.
William went on to work on projects around clean water, malaria prevention, solar power and lighting for the six homes in his family compound, a drip irrigation system, and even uniforms for the village team, Wimbe United.
William’s windmill project earned him global attention and eventually lead to a TED Talk that has been viewed more than 2.2 million times.
William graduated from Dartmouth College in 2014 and started his tenure as a global fellow at Ideo.org, where his work focused on human-centred design and sent him around the world working on projects ranging from sanitation in India to gender-based violence prevention in Kenya. He’s now working with WiderNet to develop appropriate technology curriculum that will allow people to bridge the gap between “knowing” and “doing.”