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William Kambwamba was born in 1987 to a family of farmers in rural Malawi. When a prolonged drought caused their crops to fail and the family’s income to decline, Mr. Kambwamba was forced to drop out of school due to a lack of funds for school fees. Rather than lament his apparent ill fate, 14 year old William Kamkwamba used his additional spare time to visit the local library and teach himself about electronics and the generation of electricity. Using spare bicycle parts, blue gum trees, and items found at the local dump, young Mr. Kamkwamba then built a sizable windmill by hand and installed lights in his family’s home that were powered by wind energy. The windmill’s ability to generate electricity drew neighbors wanting to charge their cell phones locally, rather than trekking with them to the nearest town.
Within a few years, Mr. Kamkwamba was something of a local hero. By 2006, his windmill drew the attention of a reporter from The Daily Times in Blantyre, the country’s commercial capital. The Daily Times article in turn attracted international attention. In 2007, Mr. Kamkwamba was featured in the Wall Street Journal and invited to give a TED talk in Arusha, Tanzania. His moving speech led to several venture capitalists offering to support his education. Mr. Kamkwamba made use of the funds after securing a spot at the elite African Leadership Academy (ALA) in South Africa, from which he graduated in 2010. (For more on ALA and its founder, Fred Swaniker, see the Nov. 2, 2014 post on this blog).
I had the good fortune to meet Mr. Kamkwamba in September 2014 when he visited my campus to discuss his recent book, The Boy who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope, which is serving as our ‘Common Reading’ for the 2014-15 academic year. By the time we met, Mr. Kamkwamba had appeared on The Daily Show (2009), spoken at the Google Science Fair (2011), been the subject of an award-winning documentary film (2013), featured by Time magazine as one of 30 people under 30 that is changing the world and graduated from the Ivy League Dartmouth College in the USA (2014).
Mr. Kamkwamba also had given back to his home community of Wimbe, Malawi through funding the construction of three primary school classroom blocks with two classrooms each. He had solar panels installed in the new primary school classrooms and the existing high school, Kachokolo, that helped power students’ computers. He also gave to boys’ and girls’ soccer teams and created two more windmills. One of them provides power to transport water to irrigate crops. In the nearby village of Masitala he supported a biogas project. It saves women time and energy collecting firewood for cooking by providing them with an alternative energy source.
Mr. Kamkwamba is currently one of four IDEO.org Global Fellows; he was selected for the honor from over 650 applicants. Mr. Kamkwamba intends to return to Malawi to create an innovation center where university and high school students can work together to develop ideas that help solve problems that local people face. He also intends to continue working on renewable energies such as wind, solar, and biogas to help people get the energy they need for daily use.
by Heidi Frontani
March 14, 2015