Malawian teenager William Kamkwamba built a generator out of a bicycle and tractor fan. Now he's lauded by environmentalists
Back in 2001 William Kamkwamba was a semi-educated 14-year-old Malawian who had been forced to drop out of secondary school when, during a terrible drought, his parents could no longer pay for him to go. This week, he has been in California and Chicago on a whirlwind book tour, hailed as a "genius" and appeared on TV chat shows. He has been the toast of international technology conferences, lauded by Al Gore and environmentalists and shared a stage with Bono and Google co‑founder Larry Page – as well as co-writing a book about his life, with journalist Bryan Mealer.
When Kamkwamba stopped going to school because his family could no longer afford the fees, he went to his local library, read up on his science, found a DIY guide to making a wind generator and set about trying to build it. Using a tractor fan, shock absorbers, PVC pipes, a bicycle frame and anything else he could lay his hands on, he then built a rudimentary wooden tower, plonked his home-made generator on the top, and eventually got one, and then four bulbs to light up. He is now known as "the boy who harnessed the wind" – the title of his book.
"I managed to teach myself about how motors and electricity worked. Another book featured windmills on the cover, and said they were used to pump water and generate power. I was so inspired I began collecting scrap metal and old bicycle and tractor pieces. Many people, including my mother, thought I was crazy," he wrote in his blog this week.
Kamkwamba is presented to the west as the "humble hero", an extraordinary Malawian who has overcome everything to improve his family's situation, but the reality is that most of Africa, India and the developing world depends on equally innovative and inventive people coming up with ways to make a living with no cash and next to no resources.
In Katine, the Ugandan village which the Guardian supports, the weekly market sees Joseph with the bicycle he has adapted to become a knife sharpener; Matthew, who charges batteries with pedal power; and several women who strip plastic sacking to weave strong rope. The shells shot by the Sudanese army into Nuba territory in the late 1980s have all been collected and been beaten into farm tools, as have the tanks and guns handed in by soldiers after the Sierra Leone war in 2002. Mosquito nets throughout Africa now double as fishing nets. Masai villagers have devised a simple water distillation process by placing pipes over volcanic steam vents. Elsewhere in Africa, people make low-cost batteries from aluminium cans and plastic water bottles. Many Malawian and Congolese communities have devised ingenious ways to lift water from rivers and wells for irrigation.