Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

A new wind blowing in Africa

If oil has the potential to destabilize or grow a nation’s economy, very few economists are concerned with the negative economic impact of wind power. While wind is a resource that hasn’t attracted mass investment yet in Africa, it’s often a great resource for isolated communities that have no other steady source of electrical power.

One of those areas is the Mastala Village in the Kasungu district of Malawi, where William Kamkwamba grew up. It’s a rural agricultural area about three hour’s travel from the capital, Lilongwe. Like many rural parts of Africa, there’s no grid electrical power. But there is wind.

William had to drop out of secondary school in 2002 because his family lacked funds to pay his school fees. Determined to continue his education, he started reading books from the primary school library, which had been contributed by USAID in a teacher training scheme. He discovered a pair of books on energy, one of which included the design for a windmill, and he began work on a five meter tall windmill near his family’s home, built from scrap timber, an old bicycle frame, and blades made from PVC pipe heated and pounded into flat blades. The windmill powers a bicycle dynamo, designed to power a bicycle’s headlamp. William ran the bicycle dynammo through a transformer, which provided enough power to charge a 12 volt battery. That battery in turn powers four lights, two radios and a mobile phone charger in William’s home.

Dr. Hartford Mchazime, the director of the Malawian training academy where William had found the books came to visit the village and was told about William’s windmill. He was so impressed by the young man’s ingenuity that he arranged for William to begin attending secondary school at government expense, and asked a reporter from the Malawi Daily Mail to report on the wind project. The Daily Mail story caught the attention of Malawian software developer and blogger Soyapi Mumba, whose post got picked up by Hactivate, Afrigadget and other blogs. Emeka Okafor from Timbuktu Chronicles – curator of the TED Global conference in Arusha – was so impressed that he arranged for William to come to the Arusha as a conference fellow.


William stands atop his windmill, which now is 12 meters high.

William’s work stole the show at TED, where he gave a three minute talk about his work and answered questions on stage from Chris Anderson. More than a few of the TED attendees were moved by his story and agreed to subsidize William’s education, both in and out of the classroom. Tom Rielly from the TED team is visiting Malawi with William this week to talk about the best ways to help William, consulting with Dr. Mchazime, William’s family and Soyapi and others of the African bloggers who’ve had the experience of moving from homes in rural areas to secondary schools in bigger cities. While the TED community is able to raise the money that would be necessary to send William to secondary school anywhere on the continent, Tom is looking for all sorts of opportunities for William to learn more, both formally and informally, both in classrooms and in machine shops.


William shows off his transformer and battery system in his house. Photo by Tom Rielly.

One important resource for William will be the brilliant geeks at Baobab Health. Soyapi and others have been building open source touchscreen health systems with Baobab, using retrofitted thin client systems. A recent volunteer project at Baobab helped build an 18m windmill – William visited the NGO yesterday and received a voltmeter and a 48 volt motor which is likely to be used in his next windmill system. Since William used his first computer only a few weeks ago, it might be a while before he’s regularly updating his own blog, but I suspect that if Soyapi has his way, William will be building power control systems in Ruby on Rails within about six months…


William’s push-button wall switch. Photo by Tom Rielly

Tom has been sending notes and pictures from the road to some of the TED community. It’s been very humbling to see what this young man has accomplished with hard work, patient reading and almost no money. The photo above shows a wall-switch for the lights in his family’s house that William engineered from PVC pipe, springs, wire and rubber from flip-flops. I take a certain amount of pride in my ability to build complex things from simple parts… but I’ve got a Home Depot down the road, disposeable income and a pickup truck. Ask me to wire my house using plastic conduit, bare copper wire and a used pair of shoes and I’d laugh at you. William would get to work and get the job done.

I’m not the only one who found William to be an inspiration. Nii Simmons, a Ghanaian-American entrepreneur, points to William’s ingenuity, and his statement, “I saw, I make,” as an inspiration for his own work. Hash has a great version of William’s story on his blog as well, and Juliana has a great video interview with Simon Mwacharo, the founder of Craftskills, a group in Kibera, Nairobi, which is building renewable energy projects in African cities. It’s likely that Mwacharo will be a great resource for William in the future… and that William is an inspiration for Mwacharo and anyone who cares about African innovation and ingenuity.

William’s not the only new African blogger to appear on the web this week. Ike Anya and Chikwe Ihekweazu have both leapt onto the scene with their new blog, Nigeria Health Watch, which looks at public health issues and innovations in Africa’s most populous nation. Welcome, guys. It’s a great time to be a reader of African blogs – if you’re not getting your daily dose, take a spin by BlogAfrica, Afrigator or Global Voices and make sure you’re getting your recommended daily allowance of African innovation.

4 Responses to “A new wind blowing in Africa”

  1. quixote says:

    Now this remarkable young man needs only the remarkable ability to keep his head while all about are losing theirs…. ;-}

  2. Shawn Fumo says:

    Thanks so much for this blog. I don’t think I’ve seen a single mention of TED in the american media (maybe I just missed it, but I wouldn’t be surprised at total absence).

    I think William’s story should be inspirational to almost anyone. If he can do so much with so little, it says a lot about the people out there who are at a loss if their shirt rips or something. Thank goodness there seems to be some resurgence of “make culture” here lately, though it has a long way to go.

    But in William’s case specifically, I really hope his design and story spreads wide. With all the talk of how effective different kinds of aid really are, that seems like a perfect example of how a little thing could make a big impact. More aid in terms of teaching basic electronics, providing cheap small parts, etc seem like they could do a lot.

    Anyway, thanks for providing all the information to people like me who are a world away and who wouldn’t otherwise know much of what was going on over there.

  3. Mary Ann Taylor says:

    Bwana Asifiwe William!!

  4. Webster says:

    I have discovered something puzzling about this story.

    If you visit Mr. Kamkwamba’s blog page, http://williamkamkwamba.typepad.com/williamkamkwamba/2007/07/schools-out-in-.html, dated July, 15, 2007, you can read about his having received books from a teacher:

    “Mrs. Maclean gave me several books to study before school begins, including an English Grammar textbook, a Geometry textbook and workbook, and several novels including The Red Badge of Courage (1895) by Stephen Crane. I’m reading it with The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary close by, as I’m a bit out of practice with reading. I like having books of my own. In many schools in Malawi, there are not enough books for every child to have his or her own.”

    In this post, you can also see a photo of the books he received. Strangely, it is exactly the same stack of books seen sitting on the bed in this post, dated June 20, 2007.

    What I find strange is that in his own blog, Mr. Kamkwamba claims to have received the books in July, however, the books appear in this blog from a post in June.

    I, too, am very inspired by Mr. Kamkwamba, and I would hope that those sharing his story would never exploit him unknowningly.

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