William Kamkwamba at MIT

Energy & Sustainability
William Kamkwamba at MIT

Recently, William Kamkwamba spoke at the Technology and Culture Forum at MIT.

William Kamkwamba, is a senior at the African Leadership Academy, a pan-African high school in Johannesburg, South Africa. A 2007 and 2009 TEDGlobal Fellow, Kamkwamba has been profiled on the front page of the Wall Street Journal and his inventions have been displayed at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. He’s often invited to tell his story at such venues as the World Economic Forum in Africa, CES, Aspen Ideas Festival, Maker Faire Africa and the African Economic Forum.


During the evening, William was introduced by Amy Smith, and spoke with his coauthor Bryan Mealor, an American journalist covering Africa. Together, they told stories of life in Malawi and William’s experiences making and fighting to learn in the midst of a devastating famine.

After the break, there is more video from the evening.

Their talk brought out many stories of his experiences growing up, but there is much more in the book “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind“. William’s curiosity came through powerfully during the evening. His coauthor Bryan Mealor helped to bring out some of the background story and to prompt William to tell of his own experiences living in Wimbe, a village in central Malawi.

William has been a classic maker since he was very young. One of the most powerful stories they told was about how William learned science. The Malawian famine in the early 2000’s resulted from poor rains causing a crop failure. To conserve their resources, William’s family could not afford the tuition for him to got to secondary school. William did, however have access to a library funded with donated books located at his former primary school. He had been exploring and repairing radios for several years, using a wire heated in the kitchen fire for soldering. In the books in the library, he found useful resources for learning physics, electricity generation and magnetism. Though the books were written in English, rather than his native Chichewa, he would find a picture in the book that showed a diagram of a system that interested him. He would then note the figure number below the illustration and go hunting through the text looking for the passage that referred to the image. Once he found it, he would translate that section of text with the help of the other books on hand and the librarian. One of the most influential of these books was Using Energy, an 8th grade science book. Through this process, William taught himself physics so that he could build a windmill out of car parts and other discarded junk to power the lights in his family’s house. Soon, the people of the village weren’t asking if William was crazy, but were rather asking if they could charge their cell phones from his windmill charged batteries.

Imagine the surprise when people came to check on the progress of the library and saw William’s junk and wooden constructed windmill rising above the village. Before too long, William was speaking at TED Global in Arusha Tanzania, visiting windmill farms, and touring in support of his book. Treehugger and Jon Stewart have interviewed William to help tell his story of determination and ingenuity.

He is currently studying in South Africa, finishing up his delayed high school education. Many talented young people from rural circumstances similar to his jump out of their poverty and move to the developed world. William now has great plans for some of the ways that his special talents and experiences can benefit his community. One of the results of his book tour is to raise awareness of the needs of young learners. As Amy Smith said in her introduction of William, “How can we celebrate the anonymous inventors all over the world?”


2 thoughts on “William Kamkwamba at MIT

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for posting this!

    The more I hear of William Kamkwamba, the more impressed I am. His poise is remarkable, and he is incredibly funny, despite the fact that english is not his native language.

    If you haven’t read his book (The Boy who Harnessed the Wind), you should really try to get a hold of a copy. His story is so remarkable, and so much more than just the windmill. His parents are remarkable in their way, too, and you see where he has learned to be the amazing, adaptable fellow he seems to be.

    Go William! I am a huge fan.

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