Business, Economics and Jobs

One boy's vision brings change to Malawi

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In 2002, teenager William Kamkwamba had a vision in the very poor African nation of Malawi: a little bicycle generator that powers a light, if connected to a windmill, would allow him to read his schoolbooks at night.

"(To) pump water meant irrigation, a defense against hunger. And I said to myself that this is what I need to solve this problem," said Kamkwamba of the potential benefits of a windmill.

As Kamkwamba went further with his plans, he began to see how such a windmill might actually bring the 20th century to his own village.

"The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind" is the title of the book by journalist Bryan Mealer that tells Kamkwamba's story.

According to Mealer, Kamkwamba had to make use of the bits of refuse around his home to create the windmill. "For his blades, he had gotten PVC pipe from a bathhouse. Plastic pipes. And he had cut them down the middle with a bow-saw, and then melted them over a fire. And before they could cool, he flattened them down and then using the bow-saw, carved them into these blades.

"He didn't have washers, so he would go collect bottle caps, beer bottle caps, in front of the bar and flatten them out and put a hole through the middle. He didn't have a drill, so he would use a nail and heat it over his mom’s cooking fire, that he would bore holes through this plastic.

"His cousin found a car battery so he was able to hook the windmill up to a car battery, charge it and then power four more bulbs which he ran through a circuit breaker system that he made out of nails and wire and a magnet that he busted out of a stereo speaker. And it worked."

Kamkwamba said it was a big moment for him when he turned on his village's first light bulb."I had been working for a long time, and the people had been mocking me. I was trying to prove to people that what I was doing was not craziness, but it was something useful. I kept looking at it and then smiling all of the time."

Mealer saw those lights come on, and the reaction in the village. "Immediately, he had a line of people down the road to charge their mobile phones. You couldn't really get rid of them. He even made an outlet so you could plug in your mobile phone outside of his house."

Kamkwamba likened his success to that of a reggae star -- once he had a hit, everyone was poised, waiting for his next one. He learned a lot from his project, including the perils of confronting the central government in Malawi, which wants to be the one to control the electricity in all of the villages.

Venture capitalists started paying attention to the things he was doing. He is now studying hard to become a scientist or an engineer at a university in South Africa.