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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Turbine Trash

Air Date: Week of

William Kamkwamba in front of his windmill.

After experiencing severe famine in Malawi in 2001, William Kamkwamba wanted to find a way to protect his family in the future. So he set out to build a windmill, using diagrams from an old physics textbook and scrap parts that he collected in the local junkyard. Host Jeff Young talks with William Kamkwamba and journalist Bryan Mealer, co-authors of “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.”


YOUNG: In 2001, famine ravaged the sub-Saharan country of Malawi. William Kamkwamba and his family survived. But the suffering left him determined to find a way to protect them from drought and hunger. William was just 14. He had to drop out of school because his family couldn’t afford the fees. So William hit the books on his own, to learn how to build a windmill using whatever he could find. Now William and journalist Bryan Mealer have written a book, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. William, Bryan, welcome to the program.

KAMKWAMBA: Thank you.

MEALER: Thanks for having us.

YOUNG: William, why did you decide a windmill would keep your family from facing another famine?

KAMKWAMBA: So, what needed to be done to harvest enough food, we need to start doing irrigation, but the only way to start irrigation is to have a certain type of machine that can be pumping water to irrigate our crops, so it’s when I decided that if I was gonna build one of this machine, I’m gonna be able to do that.

YOUNG: So, tell me about actually making this, where did you get the parts, I imagine in rural Malawi you can’t just go to the hardware store and say, hey I need the parts for a windmill. Where did things come from?

KAMKWAMBA: So, at the time when I was making my windmill I didn’t even have money, but I got news to go to the hardware and buy materials, but my materials I found them at a junkyard. Every time I go to the junkyard to look for my materials, I didn’t have any specific material to look for, but I was just picking up any piece of metal, thinking that maybe I’ll use it and then when I was doing that lots of people are laughing at me, thinking that I am going crazy because they say that it is not normal for a normal person to go into a junkyard collecting all the garbages and then telling people that I’m trying to do the windmill.

YOUNG: And, Bryan?

MEALER: Yea, I was just gonna give a little bit of background, and brag about him a little bit. You know, when he was going to the library and reading these books, and the first one was this British physics book called “Explaining Physics,” William didn’t really know how to read English that well, but it had these really beautiful illustrations and diagrams, and he was able to basically take these diagrams and where it said like ‘figure ten,’ he would look into the text and he would learn the English words and basically was able to teach himself basic physics.

William Kamkwamba in front of his windmill.

And he was really interested in bicycle dynamos, and how they worked because people used dynamos to power their head lamps on their bicycles, so he would always go around, he would ask, “How does this work, why is this producing light?” But, nobody knew so he realized that you could actually take the wires out of the lamp, itself, and they produce kind of a shock, and he would kind of shock himself while he was spinning it.

And he was able to figure out that you can ram these wires into the AC plug of a radio, and he saw this other book with the windmills on the cover that said windmills produce electricity through spinning motion. He kind of put those two things together – the dynamo with the spinning motion of the generator inside, and the turbine is the generator, and that’s what brought it all together.

YOUNG: Ah ha. So, you’re picking through this stuff from the junkyard, everybody thinks you’re basically crazy, you can’t go to school, and yet, you’re finding stuff that starts to sort of kind of look like it could be a windmill.

KAMKWAMBA: Yeah, when I was going through the junkyard, I was just wandering around in tall grasses looking for any kind of piece, putting them together. Once, I was picking up pieces of metals, examining it before I take it home, thinking about how I’m going to use this type of piece here.

YOUNG: What did you use for the blades? What were the rotors, the blades?

KAMKWAMBA: For the blades, I used PVC pipes, which I’m melting over the fire and then I stretched them. For the shaft of the windmill, I used this shock absorber to make the shaft I’m using. And old bicycle frame for the frame of the windmill.

William Kamkwamba standing on his homemade windmill.

YOUNG: And reading this is just amazing, you didn’t even have a drill! So, to make the holes, you had to what? You were heating up a nail a poking it through the plastic, is that right?

KAMKWAMBA: Yeah, for the drill I was using the nail, I was hitting the nail. When the nail gets hot now, I would be driving hot nail into a PVC pipe. It was slow process because by the time I’m picking it up to the place I want to drill the nail has cooled, so I had to run back and forth.

YOUNG: So, melted pieces of PVC pipe for the blades, tractor fan from a tractor engine for the hub, hooked up to an old shock absorber for the crankshaft. Then, what? Then you need something that’s actually going to make the juice, make the electricity. Where did that come from?

KAMKWAMBA: After I found all these things, I needed one piece, which I couldn’t find at the junkyard. That piece was a bicycle dynamo, which was too expensive. Luckily enough, my friend Gibbat bought it for me, so when he brought that dynamo, I was able to generate electricity when I hook the top to the windmill.

YOUNG: And then, came the moment of truth. Where you put this on top of a tower, which you also made, tell me about that. Tell me about the time when you first got this thing spinning.

KAMKWAMBA: Yeah, um, when the blades were spinning and they are generating electricity the light bulb came on from the windmill and the people are starting clapping hands and there was a crowd of people watching there. There was kids, and then the kids are pushing each other to, for a better look. For me it was like wow. This is the time now. I was very happy, because I have been working on the project for quite a long time and I was like proving to people that what I’ve been working on, it wasn’t craziness, but it was something useful for which can be generating electricity. For me, it was one of the exciting moment of my life.

William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer.

YOUNG: So, while you were rummaging through the junkyard people though you were crazy, but once you had a light and a radio and things like this in your house, what did people in the village of Wimbe begin to think of you then?

KAMKWAMBA: After I did all this, people started coming to charge their mobile phones. There was also another time when we experienced the drought in 2005 and what was happening is that people started pointing to my windmill, saying that this is the witch tower that is chasing away the rain, it’s not science.

YOUNG: Wait a minute; people were blaming your windmill for the fact that there was no rain?

KAMKWAMBA: Yeah, because they are seeing that the wind was starting blowing. When the wind is blowing, it was blowing the clouds and my windmill was spinning so fast. That’s why people say that, no, it’s this machine that is something magic – it’s witch tower that is blowing away the rain clouds.

YOUNG: Hmm. Bryan, you’ve covered Africa a lot as a journalist. Give us some sense of the kind of mindset that is at work there when people saw a windmill and thought it was chasing away the clouds and causing a drought.

MEALER: The way he was explaining it to me in Malawi is there are too many problems for God and man alone, so there exists this third invisible world of magic that can kind of, that helps them along. And so William, when he starts collecting his garbage, and not only do people say he’s crazy or he’s smoking marijuana or whatever, you know he’s talking insane – he’s saying I’m gonna create electricity from wind. And they said only a witch can do that, you know, good luck.

YOUNG: You know, William, it occurs to me you brought a light, a physically light into your house, but it seems you me you brought a different kind of light to your village – the light of using science.

KAMKWAMBA: I’ve just noticed that nowadays the mindset of people have really changed. Where before they are thinking that they are not to do anything in terms of science, it’s only people from the West for European people who can be doing something for the science. So, that type of mindset for lots of people has really changed.

YOUNG: Bryan, do you recall when you first heard or learned about what it was William was doing?

MEALER: Yeah, clearly. Prior to meeting William, I’d been a reporter in Africa for about five years, most of that time was spent covering the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the whole time I was working in Congo, Africans themselves always ask us, “Why do you guys only cover our bad news? Why don’t you cover our good news?” I see this Wall Street Journal article about a guy in Malawi who builds windmills out of garbage, and I said, man, this is that story! This is the story I’ve been looking to tell. And to me, this is the way you save Africa. You don’t throw money at it, you don’t throw food aid at it, you go and find these guys. And we need to comb that continent and find guys like this, and not give them money, but give them little slivers of opportunity and lift them up.

YOUNG: William, do I understand correctly that in your native language, there’s no word for windmill. Is that right?

KAMKWAMBA: Yeah, that’s right. I used the word ‘magetsi a mphepo,’ so it just means electric wind.

YOUNG: Electric wind? That’s got a nice ring to it. Yeah, so that’s how you describe it to people when they ask, what is that? You said, electric wind. Bryan Mealer and William Kamkwamba co-authored “The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind.” Thank you both very much for your time.

KAMKWAMBA/MEALER: Thanks for having us.

YOUNG: William Kamkwamba’s going back to school at a South African academy for future African leaders. He’s already started a club there for fellow inventors; he calls it the Doers Club. Can’t wait to see what he does next.



Bryan Mealer’s website

William Kamkwamba’s blog and website


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