In 2002, Malawi was in the midst of one of its worst droughts. Fourteen-year-old William Kamkwamba was suffering greatly from the crisis — his family was on the verge of starvation and they didn’t have enough money to send him to school.
As a result, William spent most of his free time at the U.S. government funded library, drawn to books about science. Because he couldn’t read English very well, he often picked up books containing pictures and diagrams.
When he saw a picture of a windmill in one of the books, a lightbulb went off in his head.
“I saw the picture of the windmill in the library book so when I saw it I said ‘ah, this picture in this book, I think I can also build this windmill,’” he told Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.
He believed the windmill might be the answer to the famine problem that his family and community were experiencing. He explained to BBC News:
“I was very interested when I saw the windmill could make electricity and pump water. I thought: ‘That could be a defense against hunger.”
So he continued reading to learn about how electromagnetics worked and spent hours working on his prototype.
At the time, everyone in his village thought he was crazy. To them, a windmill was completely foreign.
But by using a tractor fan blade, an old shock absorber, spare bicycle parts, and blades from plastic pipes, he created a turbine and from there a 16 foot tower.
And three months after he began gathering scraps, he hooked a car light bulb up to the finished turbine, the windmill started turning, and power ignited William’s family’s home.
The naysayers began gathering around his compound, hoping to use his new electricity to charge their cell phones.
“I could not get rid of them,” he joked.
News of the windmill spread and journalists came from all over to hear his story. Meanwhile, William began making improvements and upgrades to his windmill. He also built a second windmill which created a water pump to irrigate his family’s crops.
His accomplishments are now chronicled in a book entitled, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.
William hopes to inspire young people to follow their dreams, regardless of their circumstances.
“So I would like to say something to all the people out there like me. To the Africans and the poor who are struggling with your dreams — God bless … Trust yourself and believe. Whatever happens, don’t give up.”