Growing up in a subsistent farming community in Masitala Village, Wimbe, Malawi, William Kamkwamba’s entrepreneurial and innovator journey was fraught with peril but supported by familial love and internal strength. Despite food shortages, limited access to formal education, and no money, William dreamed of electrifying his family home. Armed with a library copy of Using Energy, William became a self-taught builder and inventor. In 2002, at the age of 14, his self-study paid off: William gained fame in his country when he built a wind turbine out of blue gum trees, bicycle parts, and materials collected in a local scrapyard. His windmill powered four lights, two radios—and became the means for locals to charge their cell phones.
After reading about Kamkwamba on Mike McKay’s blog Hactivate (which picked up the story from a local Malawi newspaper), TEDGlobal Conference Director Emeka Okafor spent several weeks tracking him down to extend an invitation to attend TEDGlobal on a fellowship. Onstage, William talked about his invention and shared his dreams: To build windmill capable of irrigating his entire village and completing his education.
Following William’s moving talk, there was an outpouring of support for him and his promising work. Members of the TED community got together to help him improve his power system (by incorporating solar energy), and further his education through school and mentorships. Subsequent projects have included solar power and lighting for the six homes in his family compound; a deep-water well with a solar-powered pump for clean water; and a drip irrigation system. The windmill allowed him to return to high school, graduate from Dartmouth, and work at an iconic design firm: IDEO. He is now working at WiderNET.
William’s remarkable story is documented in his autobiography, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope. And for movie-goers, watch William and the Windmill, which won the Documentary Feature Grand Jury award at SXSW in 2013. You can support his work and other young inventors at MovingWindmills.org.
The 1790 Interview
What’s your story?
I grew up in a tiny village in Malawi with seven siblings; I was the only son. We were a farm family that planted corn, tobacco, soybeans, and sweet potato–I started working in the fields when I was about 13.
Unfortunately, in Malawi, there are many challenges, mainly a famine, and hunger crisis; one of the major causes is inadequate irrigation for the crops. When I was young, there were persistent droughts, which led to crops failures, starvation—and death.
In Malawi, although elementary education is free, you have to pay for high school. My parents couldn’t pay the education fees, so I had to drop out. Since I still wanted to learn, I started going to the library to read. One day, I got super interested in a science book that had pictures of a windmill that could pump water and generate electricity. During one of my trips to the library, the librarian asked me what I was reading and what I planned to do? My response: Build a windmill to help irrigate crops. Two weeks later (perhaps at her suggestion), several journalists interviewed me and published my story in a Malawian newspaper.
Since then, I’ve spoken at TED, graduated from Dartmouth College, in the United States, and continue to study Environmental and Mechanical Engineering. With these skills, I am helping my country and others in need.
Could you tell me a bit more about your country, Malawi?
It is a landlocked, democratic country of 18 million in Southeast Africa; it borders, and Mozambique, Zambia, and Tanzania. Like many developing countries, Malawi is a poor country. Eighty percent of the population are subsistent farmers, and most Malawians live in rural areas. Despite many economic challenges, Malawi has potential and natural beauty, including being the home of a lake with the most species of freshwater fish in the world.
Despite early educational roadblocks, you are a major proponent of education, why?
Honestly, my first motivation was that I didn’t want to be behind from my friends. And, although I admire him greatly, I didn’t want to become a farmer like my father, just because it’s “the only thing that he can do.” In my village, many people are farmers not by choice but by necessity, and I wanted to have more education to be able to pursue my goals.
What was your biggest culture shock when you came to the US? And how did you adjust an Ivy League institution located in small-town New Hampshire?
In the US there was a significant cultural difference—and what shocked me the most was the climate. Also, this might sound silly, but with so many food options, I never knew what to eat!
Coming from a small rural village, living in Hanover wasn’t overwhelming; the community was great. I loved connecting with people from all over the world and learning about different cultures apart from my own.
Did your classmates know about Malawi?
Some people did, some didn’t.
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your life?
When I couldn’t afford to go to school as a child, it was difficult for me, because I always knew a formal education would allow me to solve other challenges.
What are you doing now?
After graduating from Dartmouth, I worked in San Francisco at IDEO, doing global design work (product, systems). After a year, I moved to North Carolina to work for the Wideanet Project (an NGO).
Do you plan on returning home, or do you want your family to move to the US with you?
I want to move back to Malawi. I have some projects in mind such as designing water pumps to improve crop irrigation and working with supermarkets to finance and provide irrigation kits to the nation’s farmers.
How did it feel to have a movie made of your life? Did you think people were capitalizing on your story?
It’s a fascinating feeling. Growing up I didn’t know much about movies and seeing myself in one was great.
For me, I do not feel like they were just “capitalizing” on my story. I think that the idea of sharing my story offers hope and inspiration to people, who are wearing similar shoes, to solve problems in their communities.
What’s your best piece of advice for entrepreneurs?
Don’t be afraid of taking risks and trying stuff out. You won’t know until you try out.
And any advice for public speaking?
Be comfortable on the topic you are speaking about, be yourself, and if you love doing something, then it will show.
Do you feel like your background and moments of adversity helped you become the person you are? How did you thrive under those circumstances?
First, have a secure support network. My grandmother always provided me with a lot of support and motivation, and she is my role model. In Malawi, there is a division of labor between men and women. For example, men traditionally make bricks, but my grandma also made bricks. People would ask why? And she would say “When you’re stuck in the fire you don’t wait for anyone else to put it out.” In other words, she showed me that you must try to find a solution for the problem on your own.
Do you have any regrets?
No. Maybe there were more natural ways of doing stuff, but I have learned a great deal along the way.
What are your dreams and goals for the future?
I want to use the knowledge that I gained through my studies to solve some of the problems that people are facing—not only in my community but the world in general. My focus is on renewable energy, water, and sanitation. In summary, my main general goal is to try to turn challenges into opportunities.
What’s your favorite type of music and food?
There is no one particular type, but I love listening to music; I played a lot of Reggae music growing up. My favorite food is a Malawian dish called nsima with fish.