July 7th, 2007

sledge hammer!

do-it-yourself awesomeness: William Kamkwamba

William Kamkwamba lives in Mastala Village, Malawi. His family, like his village -- and most of his country -- is quite poor. William had to drop out of school early in high school, because he couldn't afford the school fees. But he did have access to a school library near his home, which had a lot of books donated by the USAID-funded Malawian Teacher Training Activity (MTTA). When William could, he read. One item struck his fancy: the windmill. His village doesn't have electricity, and his family home was lit with paraffin candles. That wasn't great: "they are expensive, smoky, smelly and have to be purchased about 8 km from home." Electric lighting would be better. The government wasn't going to put utilities out Mastala way any time soon. But a windmill could give William enough electricity for a few lights, maybe.

So he built one.

William built the first windmill when he was fifteen. He's revised and rebuilt since then. He's nineteen now, and his current windmill lights three rooms of the family house, not including the porch, charges the family's radios and the village's mobile phones.

Last November, the MTTA's deputy director visited William's library. I can imagine how that went: "Were the books we donated useful?" "Oh, yes. You should see William Kamkwamba's windmill." "... I'm sorry, WHAT?" So William got written up in the national newspaper, and then got attention from international-development types. He's now working with folks from various companies and development groups, and the publicity has raised enough money for him to go back to school; he was even a special guest at a TED conference in Tanzania.

William Kamkwamba's project is really quite cool. Powering ultra-tech homes with sustainable energy is still difficult and expensive, but if your needs are very modest, a windmill can do a hell of a lot. I think the Kamkwamba approach has a lot to recommend it, and I'm very interested to see his future efforts. His blog is updated as communications allow (he has irregular computer access, so often has a friend post for him). Check it out: it's not often you get to watch a mad scientist blossom in rural Malawi.