Apr 25, 2019 09:19 AM EDT
His native Malawi had gone through one of its worst droughts seven years ago, killing thousands. His family and others were surviving on one meal a day. The red soil in his Masitala hometown was parched, leaving his father, a farmer, without any income. But amid all the shortages, one thing was still abundant. Wind. "I wanted to do something to help and change things," he said. "Then I said to myself, 'If they can make electricity out of wind, I can try, too."
Kamkwamba was kicked out of school when he couldn't pay 80 dollars in school fees, and he spent his days at the library, where a book with photographs of windmills caught his eye. "I thought, this thing exists in this book, it means someone else managed to build this machine," he said.
Armed with the book, the then-14-year-old taught himself to build windmills. He scoured through junkyards for items, including bicycle parts, plastic pipes, tractor fans and car batteries. For the tower, he collected wood from blue-gum trees.
"Everyone laughed at me when I told them I was building a windmill. They thought I was crazy," he said. "Then I started telling them I was just playing with the parts. That sounded more normal."
That was 2002. Now, he has five windmills, the tallest at 37 feet. He built one at an area school that he used to teach classes on windmill-building. The windmills generate electricity and pump water in his hometown, north of the capital, Lilongwe. Neighbors regularly trek across the dusty footpaths to his house to charge their cellphones. Others stop by to listen to Malawian reggae music blaring from a radio.
However, some villagers would surround him to snicker and point, Kamkwamba said. Ignoring them, he would quietly bolt pieces using a screwdriver made of a heated nail attached to a corncob. The heat- from both the crowd and the melted, flattened pipes he used as blades-did not deter him. Three months later, his first windmill churned to life as relief swept over him. As the blades whirled, a bulb attached to the windmill flickered on. "I wanted to finish it just to prove them wrong," he said. "I knew people would then stop thinking I was crazy."
His story has turned him into a globetrotter. Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, an avid advocate of green living, has applauded his work. Kamkwamba is invited to events worldwide to share his experience with entrepreneurs. During a recent trip to Palm Springs, California, he saw a real windmill for the first time-lofty and majestic-a far cry from the wobbly, wooden structures that spin in his backyard.
Kamkwamba, now 22, is a student at the African Leadership Academy, an elite South African school for young leaders. Donors pay for his education.
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