Ancient power source rediscovered in African village

Wind can be a powerful thing, carrying a child from near starvation to world prominence. Never having heard the term "green energy," an African boy unknowingly brought ancient, and at the same time, leading edge technology to his family?s small subsistence farm.

In 5,000 BC, breezes moved Egyptian boats along the Nile. Now in another part of Africa, in another technological age, a young boy has discovered the force of the wind. William Kamkwamba came across the description of a windmill in a tattered library book. He recognized what leading scientists have been pursuing on a grand scale elsewhere ? wind-generated power.

Living in the village of Masitala in central Malawi, a country where more than half the population lives below the poverty line, and less than 2 percent have electricity, the boy had not been exposed to much in the way of technology. However, he had been exposed to the vagaries of nature. A killing drought in 2002 threatened his family with starvation. In an interview, he told BBC News"I was very interested when I saw the windmill could make electricity and pump water." He thought: "That could be a defense against hunger."

No longer able to afford the $80 a year to attend school, the boy soaked up an education from old books in the local library. Like Abe Lincoln, he studied by lamp light at night after his chores were complete. Armed with enthusiasm, ingenuity, and only library books for reference, William went dumpster diving, pulling a tractor fan, shock absorber, PVC pipes and a bicycle frame from a scrap yard. Hoisting his contraption onto a 5 meter blue gum tree pole, he used wind power to illuminate a car light bulb ? to the astonishment of his fellow villagers.

Windmill diagram

Wind energy is a source of clean, non-polluting, electricity. William never saw himself as an environmentalist ? he was only trying to improve his family?s lot in life with no monetary investment and a few simple pieces of junk. Using a car battery for storage, he added a circuit breaker made from nails and magnets off an old stereo speaker, and a light switch cobbled together from bicycle spokes and rubber from a flip-flop. Voila! Electricity to power light bulbs and a radio in the farmhouse.

His fame quickly spread outside his small village when the Daily Times in Blantyre, Malawi?s commercial and financial center, picked up his story in November, 2006.

William is one of the lucky 62 percent who are literate in his country. Large families, rural living, and HIV/AIDS are prevalent in Malawi, one of the world?s least developed countries. This young innovator can expect to live only about 41 years, not much time for such a creative and dedicated individual to champion world changing ideas.

William added a donated solar-powered mechanical pump above a borehole, added water storage tanks and devised the first potable water source in the region surrounding his village.

When his original windmill?s wooden base was destroyed by termites, he attached it to concrete, then upgraded it to 48 volts. Next, he built a new windmill which turned a water pump for irrigating his family?s field. It was appropriately nicknamed the Green Machine.

Windmills date to ancient times. Centuries before Christ, the Chinese were using windmills to pump water. Ranchers in the American West in the late 19th century also pumped water with windmills. William foresees his project as a catalyst for others in his village and in his country to do likewise.  

Windmills take advantage of wind which is caused by the uneven heating of the atmosphere by the sun, combined with the irregularities of the earth’s surface, and the earth?s rotation. Windmills come in various configurations.  William?s is similar to a tower mill. A fantail, invented in 1745, keeps the blades pointed into the wind.

Using wind turbines to produce electricity began on a large scale after the 1970s. Today, windmills are designed and tested by computer modeling, with blades specifically designed to benefit from the greatest energy of the wind. All wind turbines that generate electricity have a rotor that spins in the wind, an electrical generator, a speed control system, and a tower. Some have safety features that cause them to shut down if a problem arises.

Kamkwamba WilliamIn 2007, William, still a teenager, was invited to the Technology Entertainment Design [TED] conference in Tanzania, and this July, at age 19, he presented at TED Global in Oxford England. "Before I discovered the wonders of science I was just a simple farmer," he said. His message: "Trust in yourself and believe. Never give up,"

William?s story, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, written by former Associated Press news agency reporter Bryan Mealer, was released in the U.S. September 29. The school drop out is now on tour, before returning to school on a scholarship at the elite African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, South Africa.

His actions have inspired the creation of the Moving Windmills Project, a US 501(c)3 non-profit organization. The Project supports Malawian-run rural economic development and education projects in Malawi, with the goals of community economic independence and self-sustainability. The emphasize food, water and health security; and educational success.