Catching the Wind in Rural Malawi

Innovator / by Maywa Montenegro /

With a tinkerer’s imagination and farmer’s grit, William Kamkwamba transformed junk into the beginning of one small town’s green energy revolution.

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From the blustery plains of Texas to the Danish island of Samsø, wind power—and the giant, bladed towers that generate it—is all the rage in a warming world searching for cleaner sources of energy. Fourteen-year-old William Kamkwamba had never heard of windmills, or climate change, for that matter, when he stumbled across a photograph one day and it changed his life forever.

Now 22, Kamkwamba has become something of an international DIY celebrity: He’s spoken at the World Economic Forum, at the Aspen Ideas Festival, and at TED Global—twice. He’s chatted with Al Gore, Bono, and Larry Page. A documentary about his life is currently in the works. But Kamkwamba’s story isn’t really about stardom: It’s about the grit, resourcefulness, and audacity of a young engineer who built a windmill from scrap in his native Malawi and brought power to his home—and eventually lit up every house in the village. It’s told in brilliant detail in The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (out now from William Morrow), co-authored with journalist Bryan Mealer. Seed editor Maywa Montenegro spoke with Kamkwamba while he was in New York City kicking off a US book tour.

Seed: How did you first get the idea to build a windmill?
William Kamkwamba:
In 2001, there was drought in Malawi so many people didn’t have enough food. Starting in November, people began starving to death. It was the same year I was supposed to start high school, but in Malawi you pay school fees. My parents couldn’t manage to pay the fees so I was forced to drop out.

In order to keep up with my friends who were going to school, I decided to start reading books at the library. When I was reading, I came across a book that had a picture of a windmill. I thought maybe if I try to build one of these machines, I will be able to pump water for irrigation and then my family would no longer have to go through this hunger problem.

So the library book provided the design instructions?
WK: The book did not explain how to build the windmill. It just said a windmill could pump water and generate electricity. I had to form my own design. I had a basic idea of how electromagnets work, in terms of a radio motor and a bicycle dynamo—a small generator that attaches to a bicycle wheel. When somebody pedals and rotates the wheel, it generates electricity.

Also, when I was much younger, I used to play with pinwheels. So when I saw the windmill in the book, the idea of the pinwheel suddenly connected with the bicycle dynamo. I said, I think I can build a big pinwheel to generate electricity.

Can you describe the basic assembly? Where, for instance, did you manage to find windmill parts and construction tools?
My former secondary school used to be a garage; when the garage people left, they gave the place to the minister of education, who turned it into a school. The junkyard is still there, though, so I went there to collect materials. For instance, I discovered a tractor fan and decided it was good for my rotor. A shock absorber was perfect for my shaft. And for blades, I used the plastic pipe from my aunt’s bathhouse. I cut it down the center with a bow saw and held it over a small fire until it melted. Before it cooled, I pressed it flat. For the frame, I used my father’s old bicycle.

As for tools, I didn’t have proper tools or the money to buy them. So for hammers, I used pieces of metal I found at the scrap yard or my father’s spanner—what you call a wrench. For a drill, I had to heat a big nail over a fire and push it through the plastic blades. Drilling through wood took many hours. I also had no washers, so I used beer bottle caps I found outside the Ofesi Boozing Center in Wimbe and poked a hole through them, then pounded them flat.

Diagram courtesy of WORKSHOP NYC for Moving Windmills Project

Essentially, the windmill operated the same as a bicycle: The blades were like pedals, but instead of a person pedaling them, it was done by the wind. When the blades spun, it turned the sprocket and chain on the bike, which turned the back tire. There, I’d attached a small bicycle dynamo that worked as my generator. A wire leads from the dynamo down to a small bulb in my roof.

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