We are beginning a new series that covers stories of Africans who have decided to take the bull by the horns to change the direction of their lives. We will feature young and upcoming African talent that is making a difference. To start the column it was my obvious choice to pick William Kamkwamba because he embodies the future of Young African Entrepreneurs (YAEs). I was introduced to William while listening to the Diane Rehm Show where he was promoting his book with co-author Bryan Mealer. I immediately began following his work because he is the kind of African needed in the 21st Century. Often when one hears news stories about Africans in western media it is negative. However William provided a breath of fresh air not only for African but Malawi too.
William Kamkwamba was born August 5, 1987 in Dowa, Malawi, and grew up on his family farm in Masitala Village, Wimbe, two and half hours northeast of Malawi’s capital city. The second eldest of Trywell and Agnes Kamkwamba’s seven children, William has six sisters. William was educated at Wimbe Primary School, completing 8th grade and was then accepted to Kachokolo secondary school. Due to severe famine in 2001, his family lacked the funds to pay the $80 in annual school fees and William was forced to drop out of school a few months into his freshman year. For five years he was unable to go to school. However, at 14 William started borrowing books from a small community lending library located at his former primary school. He borrowed an 8th grade American textbook called Using Energy, which depicted wind turbines on its cover. From this book he harnessed the idea to build a windmill to power his family’s home and obviate the need for kerosene, which provided only smoky, flickering, distant and expensive light after dark. First he built a prototype using a radio motor, then his initial 5-meter windmill out of a broken bicycle, tractor fan blade, old shock absorber, and blue gum trees. After hooking the windmill to a car battery for storage, William was able to power four light bulbs and charge neighbors’ mobile phones. This system was even equipped with homemade light switches and a circuit breaker made from nails, wire, and magnets. The windmill was later extended to 12 meters to better catch the wind above the trees. A third windmill pumped grey water for irrigation.