Growing up in his village in Malawi, William Kamkwamba wanted to be a scientist: “I was always very curious to understand how things worked,” he says. But a severe famine struck in 2001 when he was 14 and about to begin high school. There was no money for tuition. Surviving on a single meal a day, Kamkwamba fed his mind at the library.
Without knowing English, he used English science textbooks to design a windmill for his family’s electricity needs, built with spare bicycle parts, scrap PVC piping and blue gum trees. It powered four lightbulbs and two radios, and drew a line of neighbours looking to charge their phones. Local media attention spread to bloggers, and by age 19, he was on stage at TED Tanzania.
On Friday, April 22, Kamkwamba will address an audience the OpenAccess Energy Summit, a bi-annual gathering hosted by the Waterloo Global Science Initiative (WGSI), a partnership between the University of Waterloo and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.
Kamkwamba has become a renewable energy advocate. He’s been on the Daily Show; his life story, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, was a New York Times bestseller; he’s the subject of an award-winning documentary. He’s a recent graduate of Dartmouth College, and co-founder of an NGO, the Moving Windmills Project.
But if you ask him what accomplishment he’s most proud of, he’ll laugh. “I’m proud of the work that I did building my windmill,” he says. “It not only benefited my family, but other people in Malawi are copying my design. I’m very proud to see other people building their own windmills.”
Kamkwamba’s work links energy access to education and emphasizes hands-on empowerment. Through the Moving Windmills Project, Kamkwamba involved the students themselves in installing solar panels on the high school that he was unable to attend as a teenager. He brought in the ’s eGranary, an intranet-based digital library, and through it he encourages project-based learning. He’s developing a biogas digester to address deforestation and lighten the work of Malawian women who spend hours looking for cooking fuel. With the memory of famine still strong, Kamkwamba’s dream project is to improve access to water across Malawi through renewable energy projects.
When Kamkwamba talks about sustainable energy to North American audiences, his message is: Don’t be afraid to think small. “It all adds up,” he says. “It’s important to bring it to an individual level. Start small. You can’t change the whole system at once, but everybody can be part of the solution.”