Handle in the wind
An African student has found fame as a blogger just two weeks after
first experiencing the internet. Elissa Baxter reports.
Riding high … William Kamkwamba atop his windmill, which uses a bicycle to increase efficiency
William Kamkwamba, a 19-year-old high school student, first saw
the internet at a TEDGlobal conference last month in Arusha,
Tanzania. He was invited to the event – which aims to promote an
exchange of ideas in the fields of technology, entertainment and
design – after Malawi’s Daily Times newspaper covered his efforts
to generate electricity for his parents’ farm by building a
windmill of his own design.
The windmill is remarkable because Kamkwamba left school at 14
as his family was unable to pay the school fees. Armed only with
his intelligence, a book on electricity, some plastic piping and
found objects, Kamkwamba built his first windmill, which generated
enough power to run a light in his room.
His second, larger windmill uses a bicycle to increase
efficiency and was able to generate power for his parents’ house
and charge car batteries or mobile phones for people in his
As news of Kamkwamba’s achievements spread, he was invited to
the second biannual TEDGlobal conference, where his three-minute
presentation about the windmill won him a standing ovation from
While at the conference, the young Malawian saw the internet for
the first time and within hours began Google-searching for
"windmill" and "solar energy" and was amazed with how many hits
were returned for each search.
Kamkwamba was particularly impressed with the speed at which he
could achieve things using the internet. "I was very excited when I
saw the internet for the first time," he said. "The internet makes
transfer of information very instant."
Back in Malawi, Kamkwamba applied his new knowledge about
wind-powered electricity to a redesign of his second windmill, a
process he detailed on the blog William Kamkwamba’s Malawi Windmill
(williamkamkwamba.typepad.com/williamkamkwamba), which offers
step-by-step blog photos of the construction process.
The blog has since attracted global interest, with a Google
search for Kamkwamba’s name already generating more than 20,000
results, just a few weeks after his story became known outside
A fellow African blogger and new friend of Kamkwamba, Soyapi
Mumba, described his first impression of Kamkwamba: "What I like
about William is that he didn’t join the multitude of people just
blaming government or policy makers for his lack of education.
Neither did he point fingers at statutory corporations for the lack
of electricity in his home. He didn’t just sit down and blame his
parents for all this, either."
Andrew Heavens, a journalist based in Khartoum, Sudan, says
Kamkwamba belongs to the "cheetah" generation of Africans who are
not going to wait for government and aid organisations to do things
While Kamkwamba is certainly a cheetah, the migration from
remote Malawian village to the global stage of cyberspace has not
been achieved alone. He was assisted by US-based Tom Rielly,
director of partnerships at TED and Kamkwamba’s mentor. Rielly
travelled to Malawi with Kamkwamba after the TEDGlobal conference
and helped to establish the blog, typing while Kamkwamba dictated
the content in his limited English.
With help from friends, the Malawian also set up an email
address and an account on Flickr (you can search for William
Kamkwamba’s photos on the website).
"William was so hungry for books and reference material," Rielly
says. "He asked me for a dictionary, which I brought with me to
Malawi. But I told him, ‘I want to show you something even better
than a dictionary.’ After I showed him the internet, William
commented, ‘With computer, you can do anything."’
Kamkwamba was to get a chance to prove whether his belief in the
power of the net was correct when a computer – donated by
conference sponsors in the US – was due to arrive in his village
"My future plan is that I’m going to learn to research using the
internet," Kamkwamba says. "Then I plan to build a water pump
powered by my windmill so we can have water from the well in our
house and irrigate our fields. Then, I don’t know."