Change Observer

Thank you to Change Observer editor Julie Lasky for this opportunity.

The Doers Club

How DIY design (1) gave a teenager from Malawi electricity, and (2) can help transform Africa.

William Kamkwamba & Bryan Mealer

William Kamkwamba with homemade transformer and battery system. Photo: Tom Rielly

In 2002, I built my first of several windmills to provide my family with electricity and irrigation. This was in Malawi, where a terrible drought and famine had destroyed our maize crops and killed thousands of people. The famine also forced me to drop out of secondary school because my father could no longer afford my fees. Determined to continue my education, I began visiting a local library, funded by the Americans, where I quickly fell in love with science. As the hunger clawed its way across our country, the library was where I escaped and became lost in discussions of electromagnetism, simple motors and electricity — my favorite topic, since only 2 percent of Malawi enjoyed such a luxury.

I didn’t read English well, so I mainly taught myself these things by studying the pictures and diagrams. By the time I saw my first windmill on the cover of an American textbook called Using Energy, I was able to apply all this previous knowledge and set out to build my own. Within six months, I’d constructed a windmill that provided my family with continuous electricity and completely transformed the way we lived. A later machine allowed us to irrigate a small garden to grow produce year-round. (You can read the whole story in my new book, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, which I wrote with Bryan Mealer.)

Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

People often ask me, “So how did you manage such a thing?” Well, I designed and built my machine in much the same way many Africans are getting by these days: by taking simple, everyday materials and being creative. All across the continent, people are using innovative solutions to address the biggest problems, such as lack of water and electricity, and to find ways poor people can easily make a living.

Most of the materials for my windmill were found in the scrapyard of a nearby tobacco estate. This place was filled with abandoned cars and trucks just rusting in the sun, in addition to old water pumps, coil springs and other random metals. Unfortunately, the school where I’d dropped out was just across the road, and as I went exploring, my mates would tease me from the playground, calling out:

“Ay, there goes William again, playing in the garbage!”

But where they saw garbage, I saw treasure and opportunity.

For example, I found a rusted tractor fan that was perfect for my rotor. I then discovered an old shock absorber. After banging it against a rock and knocking loose the metal casing, the piston inside made for a great shaft. For blades, I took plastic PVC pipe from my friend Gilbert’s bathhouse and cut it down the middle with a bow saw. I then held it over a small fire next to my mother’s kitchen until it began to melt and bubble. I quickly pressed the pipe flat, and then let it cool. After that, I used the saw to carve a set of four blades. For washers, I collected Carlsberg beer bottle caps outside the nearby Ofesi Boozing Centre, then pounded them flat and punched a hole through the middle.
I used my father’s broken bicycle as a frame, then welded the rotor, blades and shaft to the sprocket. When the wind blew, the blades acted as pedals and turned, causing the chain to spin the back wheel, where I’d attached a 12-volt bicycle dynamo (my most prized possession that took me months to find!). Wires ran from my dynamo down through my roof, where I’d attached a small bulb. When the wind blew, the light flickered yellow and bright. The copper wires themselves had been stripped from old radio motors.

It wasn’t only my windmill that required creativity. I didn’t have any tools, forcing me to make my own. My hammer was a thick piece of steel I’d discovered in the scrapyard. Screwdrivers were easily made from bicycle spokes ground to a flat edge, and plastic bags were melted and fashioned into handles (this was also how I made my hunting knives). For a drill, I stuck a long nail into my mother’s cooking fire until it became red hot. Even with my maize-cob handle, drilling jobs took hours and hours, as the nail would always have to be reheated.

Schematic of Kamkwamba's windmill. Design: WORKSHOP NYC for Moving Windmills Project

Read the rest of our article.