Transforming the World, One Person at a Time

In the rural areas of my African village in Malawi, only 2 percent of the population has access to electricity. So I was determined to teach myself how to build a windmill.

EDITOR'S NOTE: While many millions agonize about their seeming inability to tackle climate change, a fresh voice has emerged from rural Africa to show how our energy creation and use can be transformed – one person at a time.

William Kamkwamba is the co-author with Bryan Mealer of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope (William Morrow), the story of how he achieved his dream of bringing electricity, light, and the promise of a better life to his family and his Malawi village. The book was a New York Times best-seller.

After becoming a star on the global TED circuit, Kamkwamba went on to graduate from Dartmouth in 2014.

Kamkwamba will be the featured keynote speaker at the Empowering Customers and Cities conference in Chicago November 4-6, which will deal with how utilities are changing their business models and embracing renewables and energy efficiency, transforming urban America.

Kamkwamba’s appearance at the conference is sponsored by the Institute for  Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern University in Evanson, Illinois.

He recently was interviewed by The Energy Times. His edited comments follow.

ENERGY TIMES: Would you please share with our readers the motivation behind your windmill innovation as a young boy?

William Kamkwamba

Kamkwamba: In the rural areas of my African village in Malawi, only 2 percent of the population has access to electricity. So I was determined to teach myself how to build a windmill to help my family power its radio, lights, and other small electric appliances. Based on my experiences, I believe electricity is the key to economic growth and development in many countries, and I am pleased that my creation has started the conversation about ‘energy poverty.’  There is a great need to accelerate electricity market development in underprivileged countries. 

ENERGY TIMES: Are you still involved in work in Malawi, and has the place changed since you left?

Kamkwamba: Yes, I go home as much as I can and I still do work there. I am currently working on several energy projects including a biogas project that I started, to help with cooking. In rural areas, people spend a good deal of time cooking because the process is inefficient, and I hope my work can help streamline this process.

Malawi has changed a lot since I created the windmill. They now use electricity for lights, radio and charging cell phones. The main thing that makes me proud is that people’s lives are improved, and that the locals can use their money on other needs within their families.

ENERGY TIMES: Do you see your efforts spreading across Africa?

Kamkwamba: I see it spreading to some areas, but not as fast as I would like.  Some people are trying to bring their own electricity to their own homes, but this is not enough. I would like to see increased participation with more people and groups taking more action.

ENERGY TIMES: Do you see progress with global poverty and energy poverty? And, is there a role for American companies to play in undeveloped countries?

Kamkwamba: I am seeing a little bit of change, but nothing drastic. There is, however, a lot that people in the United States can do to address this energy problem. For instance, here is a huge opportunity for many companies because of the global demand for energy, even in remote and impoverished communities. Companies have a chance to expand on services they are already providing, and to find new ways to work to bring energy to people.

ENERGY TIMES: You exemplify someone who bridged both worlds. Do you see a role for yourself using tech to help people with their lives?

Kamkwamba: For me, I see some simple solutions, and being able to provide electricity is one of them. At the end of the day, if you help people—you will improve their lives more than you can imagine.

ENERGY TIMES: You blogged about creating an “Innovation Center” for students from different universities and high schools. Is that something that is in the works?

Kamkwamba: Yes, this is important to me. I want to create an innovation center that brings together young people and their ideas. I want this to be a platform for students to help them to bring their ideas to life, so they can help their own communities. 

ENERGY TIMES: What advice would you give to young people who want to change something about their own community? 

Kamkwamba: My advice would be that when you are doing something, do not allow challenges to get in your way. Keep doing what you are doing because whatever you are doing is better than not doing anything at all. So however small of a contribution you think you are making, it is important. One person at a time can change the world.

ENERGY TIMES: As you look at just the United States what is most promising in terms of new technologies for energy innovation?

Kamkwamba: I see many promising opportunities in solar energy and wind energy; also in understanding other potential sources of energy. 

ENERGY TIMES: What do you like most and least about your life in this country?

Kamkwamba: My life in the U.S. is very different than it was in Malawi. It is much easier to do things here. I do not like the cold, but I enjoy hiking, hanging out with my friends, and pick-up games. I communicate with my family and friends back home often, and they are happy for me. 

ENERGY TIMES: What do you want to talk about at the Empowering Customers & Cities event next month?

Kamkwamba: I am most interested in discussing alternative energies and impacting the lives of people. It is a global discussion—how people are doing it for themselves locally and in other parts of the world. I hope to make the connection about how energy can help less-developed areas.


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