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His native Malawi had gone through one of its worst droughts seven years ago, killing thousands. His family and others were surviving on one meal a day. The red soil in his Masitala hometown was parched, leaving his father, a farmer, without any income.
But amid all the shortages, one thing was still abundant.
"I wanted to do something to help and change things," he said. "Then I said to myself, 'If they can make electricity out of wind, I can try, too.'"
Kamkwamba was kicked out of school when he couldn't pay $80 in school fees, and he spent his days at the library, where a book with photographs of windmills caught his eye.
"I thought, this thing exists in this book, it means someone else managed to build this machine," he said.
Armed with the book, the then-14-year-old taught himself to build windmills. He scoured through junkyards for items, including bicycle parts, plastic pipes, tractor fans and car batteries. For the tower, he collected wood from blue-gum trees.