You may have heard of him, the child who saved his village through the use of windmills. Perhaps, you’ve even read his book or watched the film, "The Boy who Harnessed the Wind." William Kamkwamba is a leading innovator in sustainable energy, especially in regards to advancing low-income African communities and furthering their youth’s education. In this first installment of the Project Role Models series, we’ll cover how Kamkwamba built an electricity-generating windmill from spare parts at just age 14, and how you can use his story to inspire your own project!
The year is 2002 and 14 year-old William Kamkwamba has dropped out of school due to the inability to raise school fees. Still, determined to continue his education, he checks out numerous educational books from the library, especially those on the topic of science. Using the photo of a windmill in a U.S. textbook, he builds his family an electricity-generating windmill from spare parts. Though small, it is able to power four light bulbs and 2 radios. He then goes on to build an even bigger windmill that would irrigate not only his family’s crops, but his entire village’s in the midst of a famine. Later on, he even completes subsequent projects for clean water, malaria prevention, and solar power.
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Today, Kamkwamba is the co-founder of the Moving Windmills Project, which has empowered thousands of Malawians through actions like supporting community development programs, as well as renovating local schools with new facilities and learning materials. The project now aims to complete their biggest project yet—The Moving Windmills Innovation Center—which will be a hands-on, collaborative-learning center located in Kasungu, Malawi. Kamkwamba and every team member of this project hopes to create a space where young people will find the mentorship and tools necessary to address the complex problems unique to their communities.
Kamkwamba is an inspiration to students working on passion projects at Polygence and elsewhere. His story is not meant to pressure you to build a windmill from scratch with no instruction outside of a textbook picture. At Polygence, your mentor is here for a reason and success isn’t always meant to be found alone. Kamkwamba himself stated that “Good tools and mentorship are the two things I wished I had when I was building my windmill,” and we aim to provide just that at Polygence. Our biggest hope is that you are able to draw inspiration from the success of another student determined to enrich their education.
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Here are some possible project ideas adapted from Kamkwamba’s work:
Build a small windmill or other machine that can generate some electricity
Study irrigation and its impact on the environment and rural communities
Conduct experiments on what materials and panel designs work best for windmills
Explore trends within countries that have younger populations versus older populations
Research ways to empower low-income communities through clean energy sources
Kamkwamba’s story is an impactful one, but whatever your project may be, windmill or not, we encourage you to share it with a wider community. Don’t tuck it away in a drawer once finished. Allow it to be shared with the world. You never know where it might lead you, just as Kamkwamba never imagined he would be giving a TED Talk at just 19 years of age. Plus, allowing the world to see your work is allowing your work to inspire other kids just like you.