The story that turned William Kamkwamba into hero


In November 2006, former Times journalist, SANGWANI MWAFULIRWA, visited a teenager at Wimbe in Kasungu District who had made a windmill for generating electricity for his home. A feature story from the visit generated interest among stakeholders including bloggers. It happened that Tom Rielly of TED Conference would pick up the story from a blog and trace the boy so that he could be supported to realise his dream.

Today, the world is celebrating the success of this village boy, William Kamkwamba, whose story inspired a book and later a movie titled The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. In celebrating Kamkwamba’s success, the republish the first story ever written about him.

While government might be moving at a retarded pygmy’s pace to search for alternative sources of electricity when signs are evident that Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi will not cope up with demand, a Form One dropout in Kasungu has proved that it is possible.


Using simple and straightforward concepts of science, William Kamkwamba of Mastala Village in the area of Traditional Authority Wimbe is generating electricity for his home using the ancient technology of a windmill.

William says after dropping out of school in 2002, because he could not raise schools fees, he had nothing to do and grew an interest in reading science books from Wimbe Teachers Development Centre (TDC). The books were donated by the Malawi Teacher Training Activity (MTTA) and were sourced from the International Book Bank.

He says one day while reading, he came across two books, Using Energy and How it Works, which are about generation of electricity using a windmill.


On a trial and error basis, he managed to make a small windmill which generated electricity enough to light his dorm. Seeing its success, he planned for a bigger one so that his parents could benefit and some well-wishers gave him money to get some of the materials he needed.

“When I was making all these, some people were mocking me that I was going mad but I had confidence in what I was doing because I knew if it was written in the books then it was true and possible. When I succeeded, they were impressed,” explains William.

The windmill stands on a tripod of wooden poles about five metres above the ground. It consists of locally-available materials and as far as he can remember his investments were K500 for two bearings, K500 for a bicycle dynamo, K400 for a fun belt and K800 for a bicycle frame.

The propellers are made of plastic pipes supported by sticks so that they should not bend when the wind is strong and placed almost vertical to the direction of where the wind comes from.

Unlike most windmills, where the propellers turn the spindle connected to the turbines directly, William added pulleys to his machine to increase speed thereby generating more energy.

There are three pulleys and the last is connected to a bicycle wheel. When this wheel turns, it spins a dynamo which in turn generates electricity.

“If you can study it closely, it is just how the bicycle operates, only that the work done by man in a bicycle is done by the wind,” he explains.

The alternating current generated is transferred to his house, which plays a role of a sub-station. Although amperes, ohms and resistance do not exist in the young man’s dictionary, he is able to differentiate between alternating current and direct current.

With no window, his dormitory is almost engulfed in darkness but when he switches on his electricity, one is able to see his clothes hanging on the line, his bed and his paraphernalia heaped at one of the corners.

Here he connects the electricity to a rectifier diode which converts the electricity from alternating to direct current which can now be used to light the car lamp in his house.

During the day, because the electricity is not in high demand at his home, he uses it to charge a 12- volt automobile battery which acts as a reservoir, in case the wind is not blowing and he wants some energy.

“Some people also come with their batteries so that I can charge the batteries. I don’t know much energy goes into them but I know after charging they are able to use their battery listening to the radio for two weeks,” he explains.

William says the electricity can also be used for charging mobile phones and if he had a step-up transformer, he could be watching a colour television.

For the whole of this year, he had only three breakdowns because strong winds destroyed the panes.

“They are made of plastic material and when winds are strong, they bend inside and hit the metal and they break. If I can get metal ones, it could be better,” he explains.

William has distributed some electricity to his parents’ house. Now they have four bulbs and two radios that depend on this electricity. They forgot the price of paraffin and the pain of travelling a long distance to the trading centre to buy it.

“Darkness no longer forces us to go to bed earlier; we go to bed when we want. The light from the bulb is even better than from a paraffin lamp as it doesn’t produce smoke,” he says.

His father, Trywell Kamkwamba is proud of his son’s achievements and wished well-wishers could help him go back to school again in the next academic year.

He claims that they are now saving K200 everyday, which they used to spend on paraffin plus transport expenses to Mtunthama Trading Centre which is eight kilometres away.

William has joined a Science Club at his former primary school, Kachokolo and made another windmill for generating electricity which the pupils use to listen to the radio.

This one was made from a dynamo of a free play radio and according to him; it produces direct current which can be used directly by the radio.

His plans are now to make another windmill that will pump water from a well and irrigate his garden. He will use rubbers from a treadle pump and some pipes to make a pump.

“I will connect the windmill to a pump so that when it is revolving, it will pump water into a tank from which it will be distributed to the field for irrigation or drinking,” he explains.

It is not known how much electricity is generated from windmills in the country but the World Wind Energy Association estimates that it contributes one percent of the total electricity consumption.

Deputy Chief of Party for MTTA, Hartford Mchazime, says his programme donated 25,000 books to 54 TDCs in Phalombe, Kasungu, Mzimba and Machinga to encourage a reading culture among pupils and also as alternative reading to the prescribed books.

Mchazime says there are reports that the books are benefiting many people including teachers who want to upgrade, as the books are a rich source of information.

“Libraries are not many in the country but we should try to provide many books to pupils. If a child clings to prescribed textbooks only, that means he will only read eight books on a subject throughout his primary school,” he explains.

He says, using the donated books, teachers in some schools far from the TDCs have formed sub-libraries where they borrow the books in bulk for their pupils and return them after two weeks for another consignment.

With his admirable innovations, William hopes to go to school again during the next academic year perhaps there are bigger things for him in the near future.

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