The World's DIY Hero: An Interview With William Kamkwamba, Windmill Wunderkind

William Kamkwamba speaking on stage.

TED Conference / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

To most of us, old bicycle parts are mostly good for DIY furniture projects if they're good for anything, and windmills are best designed by people with advanced degrees.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

When fourteen-year-old William Kamkwamba, of Masitala Village in Wimbe, Malawi, stumbled across the image of a windmill for the first time while pouring over a library book, he wasn't thinking like that. He was thinking of his village's lack of electricity (only 2% of Malawi is electrified) and of how electricity could power an irrigation pump, which would help his family and others cope with meager crops. If you've been reading TreeHugger, or any news really, you probably know what happened next...Instead of classes that his parents couldn't afford, and amidst the suspicions of his village, William designed and built a windmill based on the picture he saw and a pile of scrapyard junk. When he first switched it on, the DIY turbine powered lights and radios in his family home -- and electrified his village and the world.

No Tilting at Windmills

Since his introduction to the world at TED in 2007, William has spoken at the World Economic Forum, the Aspen Ideas Festival and Maker Faire Africa, chatted with Al Gore, Bono, and Larry Page, and become the subject of an upcoming documentary (preview here) and a captivating new book, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (William Morrow), co-authored with journalist Bryan Mealer.

None of this attention has blown William off track: he's since built a solar-powered water pump that supplies the first drinking water in his village, and two other windmills, and is planning two more, in addition to a water well drill that would come in handy as the water crisis hammers Malawi.

The impromptu inventor was at the tail end of his whirlwind book tour when I spoke to him last week. After the seventh question, we had to continue by email: he was talking on the phone outside, and his voice just kept cutting out. It sounded like a strong wind.

TreeHugger: Hey William. Where are you now?

William Kamkwamba: I'm at MIT. Today we're having a book tour and at the same time i'm in the process i'm trying to visit colleges.

Oh, are you looking at MIT?

Yes. You know, it's a big school and I'm just thinking, "Am I going to succeed in this world of MIT?" I'm just looking at schools, thinking about these type of things. i'm also looking at another couple of schools -- Harvey Mudd and Olin. Wherever I get in, I'll be okay with that. All these schools have amazing resources ...

In your interview on the Daily Show, I heard about the revelation you had when you first got on the Internet ("Where was this Google all this time?"). But we're all lucky that your local library had that book. Can you describe the library? How common are libraries like this around Malawi?

Libraries like this are not that common. Most schools don't even have enough books for their students. In my primary school, there was one book for five children. We always had to share, so you hoped you read at the same level as your friend. This library at my primary school was special. It was funded by USAID through American Institutes for Research and the International Book Bank, working with a local NGO called Malawi Teacher Training Activity. These were mostly donated books. Textbooks and a few novels. The library had three metal shelves and it smelled dusty inside. I thought it was wonderful. I began by checking out books that my friends in school were studying. Since I was dropping out of school, I wanted to still be on the same page as my friends. But while there, I discovered books on science, and these books changed my life.

I look at plenty of pictures all day but it doesn't lead to anything very productive. Where the heck did you get the confidence to go from a picture to building a windmill? And where did you get the know-how?

I didn't get any confidence from my family but some of my friends were very supportive of what I was doing, and from me, myself. I had confidence in myself after seeing the picture of the windmill in this book, I said to myself, "Somewhere, somebody built this machine and it was built by hand, and it was a human being who did that. I'm also a human being."

At this particular time I was able to fix some radios. I was aware of how to work with electricity. Me and my cousin, most of the time we worked on radios and fixed them. I guess we started because I was curious to understand how radios work.

When I was little, I used to think there were small people inside. Most of the time, I was just trying to see the people who are speaking in the radio. When I opened it up, there were small things looking like people -- little people! - but by taking them apart and putting them back I was able to understand what actually made them work.

Clearly, building your first windmill was not a breeze. But what was the hardest part?

The most difficult part was finding materials to use. [He would use blue gum trees, old bicycle parts and PVC piping, salvaged from a junkyard.] Another difficult part was after I had managed to build everything and I was supposed to actually lift the tower up - it required very hard work. I got my cousin and friend to help me to lift it up. The other challenge was because people didn't believe me. They would always be laughing at me, thinking i'm going crazy.

When it was up and running, what did it immediately mean to your village?

The significance of the windmill in my area was that lots of people began using it to charge their mobile phones for free. And another big thing: my family was using kerosene most of the time for light, and those lamps produced thick, black smoke that made everyone cough and made my sisters sick. They were a serious problem.

If you were to build your windmill knowing what you know now, how would you do it differently?

I would have placed a tail on the windmill to catch the direction of the wind. I would have also gone on Google where there are directions on how to build a windmill. I could have used this Google back then.

You've said that access to the internet is one of the most important uses for energy in a place like Malawi. Can you talk about the impact of the Internet in a place like the town you're from?

As I said, I could have used this Google for my windmill. But it also brings people together. At my school [the African Leadership Academy], I have students from all over Africa and we all learn each others cultures. This is very important, especially in Africa where many wars are fought over land and tribal differences. You can also learn to read on the Internet, have access to valuable education that you cannot get in the poor village schools. It really is a window to the wonderful world.

In the US, wind is seen as a high-tech renewable energy source that can help reduce our massive carbon emissions and our dependence on coal and foreign oil. In Malawi, wind is a matter of more immediate necessity: how to get electricity to begin with...

No one in Malawi goes to their father or brother and says, "we need to go off the grid." We don't talk about wind like it's helping climate change. We talk about wind and solar because it's a simpler and cheaper way to give us electricity and irrigation. Clean water and power is our right as humans on this earth, and for too long our governments in Africa have failed to provide these things. They also failed to bring us telephone lines, so we simply put up cell towers and now millions of Africans have mobile phones. We skip the problem by creating our own solutions. And yes, if this can save the planet in the process, then I am happy for that.

Given Malawi's various challenges now, where does climate change fit in as a topic among people you know in Malawi?

Climate change is important to Malawi, but many people see alternative energy more as a means to skip the government and get electricity and power. Deforestation is a huge problem in Malawi, which only adds to the problem. People cut down trees because they have no power to run electric stoves, etc. So they use firewood. This is a problem all over Africa. The windmills don't produce enough power to operate a stove, but with some more innovation, this could be easily solved.