In 2014, a young Malawian man named William Kamkwamba walked down the aisle alongside his classmates, receiving his diploma from Dartmouth College. At 27 years of age, he was perhaps a little older than many of his peers, but he’d lived a lot of life in that time. So much life in fact, that it would light up a whole village… and beyond.

Rough Start

Hailing from a big farming family, William was unable to attend school past 8th grade because of the severe famine conditions in 2001. Tuition was only $80 per year, but times were tough and money became tight with no water for crops. As the second-born (and only boy) in Trywell and Agnes Kamkwamba’s family, his six sisters needed support that only their brother could provide. So, a few months into his freshman year, he dropped out and went to work on his family farm in Masitala Village, Wimbe – two and a half hours northeast of Malawi’s capital. But just like any smooth-running machine, the gears of William’s mind continued to turn with ease. Without school, there was no readily-available structure to his learning. But that was OK. He didn’t seem to need one.

Knowledge Is Power

Have you heard of the woman who built an entire house by learning from YouTube videos? (2) Well, William did it the analog way: with library books. And he didn’t just build a house. Instead, he built a whole future. Rather than settle into farming life, William’s curiosity and desire to learn continued to blossom. He began to borrow books from his former primary school library. One textbook called Using Energy lit a spark in him, and with it, he learned how to build a windmill to power his family’s home, instead of using kerosene. Using a radio motor, broken bicycle, shock absorber, and tractor fan blade, a prototype 5-meter windmill was born. He then learned how to bank power in a car battery, and with that, the whole house had electric light. 

Since then, William has brought solar power to all six homes on his family’s property, dug a water well and fitted it with a solar pump for clean water, and provided drip irrigation for his family’s crops. (1)

Bright Minds Attract Attention

As you might expect, that first windmill project drew some attention. It didn’t take long for some of the world’s forward thinkers to come knocking, though it wasn’t without some doing. But, he wasn’t exactly accessible way out there in rural Malawi! In a modern-day game of Telephone, a representative from the Malawian NGO (Non-Government Organization) running the local library William was borrowing from came to see the windmill project. His name is Dr. Hartford Mchazime, Ph.D., and he brought the press. The Malawi Daily Times wrote a feature-length story about William, and the engineers at Baobab Health Partnership in Malawi blogged about the story. (3) Eventually, Emeka Okafor, program director for TEDGlobal, heard of William’s ingenuity and set about meeting him. When she finally found him, she invited him to the prestigious TEDGlobal conference as a presenter. From there his star really began to rise, giving him the worldwide exposure and monetary support he needed for a deeper impact on the everyday lives of so many.

Oh, and Dartmouth happened too of course. (1)

Always Be Curious

Albert Einstein famously said: “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” This curiosity is the doorway to brilliance. It is through this lens of “what if…?” that we can coax new ideas to the fore. “What would it take to…?” can be the start of something really great. And what’s truly magical about this, is that anyone can do it. Anyone can ask the question.

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