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TEDGlobal 2009

William Kamkwamba: How I harnessed the wind

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At age 14, in poverty and famine, a Malawian boy built a windmill to power his family's home. Now at 22, William Kamkwamba, who speaks at TED, here, for the second time, shares in his own words the moving tale of invention that changed his life.

- Inventor
To power his family's home, young William Kamkwamba built an electricity-producing windmill from spare parts and scrap -- starting him on a journey detailed in the book and film "The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind." Full bio

Thank you.
00:12
Two years ago, I stood on the TED stage in Arusha, Tanzania.
00:15
I spoke very briefly about one of my proudest creations.
00:19
It was a simple machine that changed my life.
00:24
Before that time,
00:28
I had never been away from my home
00:30
in Malawi.
00:33
I had never used a computer.
00:36
I had never seen an Internet.
00:38
On the stage that day, I was so nervous.
00:42
My English lost,
00:47
I wanted to vomit.
00:51
(Laughter)
00:53
I had never been surrounded by so many azungu,
00:57
white people.
01:01
(Laughter)
01:03
There was a story I wouldn't tell you then.
01:06
But well, I'm feeling good right now.
01:09
I would like to share that story today.
01:12
We have seven children in my family.
01:15
All sisters, excepting me.
01:17
This is me with my dad when I was a little boy.
01:21
Before I discovered the wonders of science,
01:26
I was just a simple farmer
01:29
in a country of poor farmers.
01:31
Like everyone else, we grew maize.
01:34
One year our fortune turned very bad.
01:38
In 2001 we experienced an awful famine.
01:43
Within five months all Malawians began to starve to death.
01:48
My family ate one meal per day, at night.
01:55
Only three swallows of nsima for each one of us.
01:59
The food passes through our bodies.
02:03
We drop down to nothing.
02:05
In Malawi, the secondary school,
02:09
you have to pay school fees.
02:12
Because of the hunger, I was forced to drop out of school.
02:14
I looked at my father
02:20
and looked at those dry fields.
02:22
It was the future I couldn't accept.
02:24
I felt very happy to be at the secondary school,
02:28
so I was determined to do anything possible
02:32
to receive education.
02:37
So I went to a library.
02:39
I read books, science books, especially physics.
02:41
I couldn't read English that well.
02:45
I used diagrams and pictures
02:47
to learn the words around them.
02:50
Another book put that knowledge in my hands.
02:55
It said a windmill could pump water and generate electricity.
02:59
Pump water meant irrigation,
03:05
a defense against hunger,
03:08
which we were experiencing by that time.
03:10
So I decided I would build one windmill for myself.
03:14
But I didn't have materials to use,
03:18
so I went to a scrap yard
03:21
where I found my materials.
03:23
Many people, including my mother,
03:26
said I was crazy.
03:30
(Laughter)
03:32
I found a tractor fan,
03:34
shock absorber, PVC pipes.
03:36
Using a bicycle frame
03:38
and an old bicycle dynamo,
03:41
I built my machine.
03:45
It was one light at first.
03:47
And then four lights,
03:50
with switches, and even a circuit breaker,
03:53
modeled after an electric bell.
03:58
Another machine pumps water
04:02
for irrigation.
04:06
Queues of people start lining up at my house
04:09
(Laughter)
04:12
to charge their mobile phone.
04:14
(Applause)
04:16
I could not get rid of them.
04:20
(Laughter)
04:22
And the reporters came too,
04:24
which lead to bloggers
04:27
and which lead to a call from something called TED.
04:29
I had never seen an airplane before.
04:34
I had never slept in a hotel.
04:36
So, on stage that day in Arusha,
04:39
my English lost,
04:43
I said something like,
04:46
"I tried. And I made it."
04:49
So I would like to say something
04:53
to all the people out there like me
04:55
to the Africans, and the poor
04:58
who are struggling with your dreams.
05:01
God bless.
05:05
Maybe one day you will watch this on the Internet.
05:07
I say to you, trust yourself and believe.
05:11
Whatever happens, don't give up.
05:16
Thank you.
05:18
(Applause)
05:20

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About the speaker:

William Kamkwamba - Inventor
To power his family's home, young William Kamkwamba built an electricity-producing windmill from spare parts and scrap -- starting him on a journey detailed in the book and film "The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind."

Why you should listen

William Kamkwamba, from Malawi, is a born inventor. When he was 14, he built an electricity-producing windmill from spare parts and scrap, working from rough plans he found in a library book called Using Energy and modifying them to fit his needs. The windmill he built powers four lights and two radios in his family home.

After reading about Kamkwamba on Mike McKay's blog Hactivate (which picked up the story from a local Malawi newspaper), TEDGlobal Conference Director Emeka Okafor spent several weeks tracking him down at his home in Masitala Village, Wimbe, and invited him to attend TEDGlobal on a fellowship. Onstage, Kamkwamba talked about his invention and shared his dreams: to build a larger windmill to help with irrigation for his entire village, and to go back to school.

Following Kamkwamba's moving talk, there was an outpouring of support for him and his promising work. Members of the TED community got together to help him improve his power system (by incorporating solar energy), and further his education through school and mentorships. Subsequent projects have included clean water, malaria prevention, solar power and lighting for the six homes in his family compound; a deep-water well with a solar-powered pump for clean water; and a drip irrigation system. Kamkwamba himself returned to school, and is now attending the African Leadership Academy, a new pan-African prep school outside Johannesburg, South Africa.

Kamkwamba's story is documented in his autobiography, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope. A  documentary about Kamkwamba, called William and the Windmill, won the Documentary Feature Grand Jury award at SXSW in 2013 (watch a trailer ). You can support his work and other young inventors at MovingWindmills.org.


More profile about the speaker
William Kamkwamba | Speaker | TED.com