Film: The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind

By Neenah Payne

Chiwetel Ejiofor, director of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind was interviewed by The Daily Show host Trevor Noah in “Chiwetel Ejiofor – Telling a Malawian Story in ‘The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.'”

Ejiofor is a British actor who made his directorial debut in this film about Malawian engineer William Kamkwamba. Ejiofor learned to speak Chichewa for his role in the film as William’s father.

The film is based on the book The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind which tells the story of 13-year-old William Kamkwamba who was inspired by a science book he found when he snuck INTO school. Since William’s parents could no longer afford to pay for him to attend school, he snuck into the school library to read and teach himself how to build a wind turbine to save his Malawian village from famine!

Ejiofor pointed out that the story can inspire people around the world to find solutions for seemingly hopeless situations. William’s genius was widely recognized and he was rewarded with a chance to give a TED Talk among many other opportunities. As an adult, Kamkwamba is paying it all forward now.

Netflix Film About William Kamkwamba’s Amazing Story

This is an extremely powerful and beautiful film that provides insight into the many struggles that the people of Malawi faced in terms of the weather, their land, their economy, and their democracy. When William’s family was starving because of the drought, he was finally able to convince his father to let him use his bicycle (his only means of transportation) to build a windmill that powered a pump to irrigate the land. People laughed and thought William was crazy – until they saw the water flow freely and crops flourished. The word spread and William was granted a scholarship to go to a top school.

The 2019 film can be seen at: https://www.netflix.com/title/80200047

Amazon says of the book The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind:

William Kamkwamba was born in Malawi, a country where magic ruled and modern science was mystery. It was also a land withered by drought and hunger. But William had read about windmills, and he dreamed of building one that would bring to his small village a set of luxuries that only 2 percent of Malawians could enjoy: electricity and running water. His neighbors called him misala—crazy—but William refused to let go of his dreams. With a small pile of once-forgotten science textbooks; some scrap metal, tractor parts, and bicycle halves; and an armory of curiosity and determination, he embarked on a daring plan to forge an unlikely contraption and small miracle that would change the lives around him.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is a remarkable true story about human inventiveness and its power to overcome crippling adversity. It will inspire anyone who doubts the power of one individual’s ability to change his community and better the lives of those around him.

Kamkwamba’s 2007 TED Talk

This 2007 TED Talk has almost three million views!

 

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 now powers four lights and two radios in his family’s home.

After reading about Kamkwamba on Mike McKay’s blog Hacktivate (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 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 the trailer below).

You can support his work and that of other young inventors at MovingWindmills.org.

William Kamkwamba’s Journey

The video Moving Windmills: The William Kamkwamba story explains more of his journey. He says that initially, his family and neighbors thought his idea was crazy and it didn’t receive much support. However, after he built small windmills that powered radio and light bulbs, some people began to realize that windmills could be useful and that they should help him.

After Kamkwamba built the windmill to power the pump that irrigated his family’s land, journalists came to see it and wrote an article about it. The village saw the journalists as celebrities. As a result of his success, Kamkwamba was invited to the US for the first time in 2007. He visited Manhattan where he went to the top of the Empire State building and took a helicopter ride to the Statue of Liberty.

Kamkwamba also visited a Wind Farm in Palm Springs, California. He said his dream was to finish his education and to start his own windmills company. He said most people want access to the internet now, but that is possible only with electricity. So, he wants to find a way to supply reliable access to electricity.

Over the next nine months, Kamkwamba added a second windmill, solar panels, bright lighting, and a deep water well to his family’s compound. So, now his family can work, study, and read at night and irrigate crops by day. In September 2008, Kamkwamba joined the inaugural class of the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, South Africa – the first pan-African preparatory school.

Dartmouth College Graduate

The 2017 video below, “Catching up with inventor William Kamkwamba,” explains that Kamkwamba graduated from the African Leadership Academy in 2010 and later graduated from Dartmouth College in the US! Kamkwamba is working with farmers in Malawi to help them use pumps to irrigate their lands. His parents now have a new business.

Kamkwamba has arranged financing for farmers, helped build up the school system, and has improved transportation in his village. He helped his six younger sisters complete high school. Two are still in high school and one sister will graduate from the university next year. Kamkwamba also co-authored the book The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind.

Kamkwamba has been invited around the world to share his experiences creating the windmill to irrigate the land and to save his village. His goal now is to continue to try to solve the problems in his community and the world. Because he was inspired by a book, Kamkwamba is sharing information online so others can do projects to solve problems in their own communities.

Paying It Forward Now

In the 2014 Ted Talk “Paying it forward with innovation,” Kamkwamba explained that after his 2009 TED Talk, financing was arranged for him to attend the African Leadership Academy (shown below) in 2010.

Its goal is to create future leaders of Africa. With his friend Bryan Mealer, he co-authored the book The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind. During the book tour in the US, Dartmouth College invited Kamkwamba to apply and he was accepted.

Although Kamkwamba found the classes challenging, he knew he could graduate because others had! With the help of his professors and tutors, he caught up to his friends by the middle of sophomore year. When Kamkwamba went home during summers, he and his friends installed solar panels in the primary school so students can study at night. He provided computers. Attendance has doubled. They installed solar water pumps to provide easy access to water. Kamkwamba started a soccer team in his village. He started a maize business that is run by his parents. He also started a minibus transportation service. Kamkwamba wants to intern in a design firm and then go home to work on energy and water projects.

The TED Conference and Moving Windmills Project

In the video “William and the windmill,” Kamkwamba discusses his experience building his windmill in 2002 when he was 14. He was inspired by a book in the school library which said that windmills can generate electricity to power water pumps. He knew that would allow him to irrigate his family’s land and help solve the drought and famine.

Although, the book did not explain how to build a windmill, Kamkwamba found it easy to figure it out. So, he scavenged parts from the junkyard. The people who initially thought he was crazy now want his help in building windmills! Kamkwamba also used the windmill to generate electricity for his family’s home so they didn’t have to use a kerosene lamp which caused smoke that made them cough and get sick.

In the video “The Journey After the Windmill,” Kamkwamba explained that when he was around six or seven years old, he taught himself about electricity by exploring how radios work and began repairing radios for people in his village.

He discusses his journey from building his windmill to being visited by journalists who published an article. As a result, he was invited to a TED Talk conference in Tanzania. Kamkwamba had to fly there, but he had never even seen an airplane! He was worried about where he was going to stay because had never been in a hotel. He was also concerned about what to wear to the conference!

After Kamkwamba gave his TED Talk, a lot of people asked how they could help him. He said that he wanted to continue his education and to build more windmills to pump water for irrigation. The TED people helped Kamkwamba install a solar water pump that provided the only clean drinking water for the area. The closest pipe water was 30 miles away! So, women in his village now get clean water for free and use the two hours formerly spent traveling to the public well for other things. His mother and other people in the village are using the water for small gardens.

The TED Conference people helped Kamkwamba get a computer and an email address. In 2008, they helped him start the Moving Windmills Project whose motto is “African Solutions to African Problems.” They have sponsored many enterprises including a soccer team which has had a large impact. One team member was recruited by Mzuzu University, one of the best schools in the nation, which he now attends. The latest innovation is the Moving Windmills Innovation Center to inspire low cost solutions and economic progress throughout Malawi.

When water pumps broke, people had to wait for the government to come fix them which can take a long time. So, Kamkwamba taught people how to maintain water pumps and reduce cholera and other water-borne diseases in many parts of the country.

William Kamkwamba’s Global Impact

In the video “William’s Story | The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind,” Kamkwamba says he gets a lot of emails from people who say he inspired them to get a degree in engineering. Chiwetel Ejiofor, director of the film and actor who played William’s father, explains that Kamkwamba’s story resonates with people around the world. It encourages them to use their knowledge, imagination, and resources to solve problems in their communities.

In the book The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope, Kamkwamba thanks the many people who helped him realize his dreams. After graduation from Dartmouth College, Kamkwamba received a fellowship to IDEO, a global design firm in San Francisco which runs a nonprofit to improve people’s lives in poor communities around the world. The team traveled the world working on projects ranging from sanitation in India to gender-based violence prevention in Kenya. William is now working with WiderNet, a non-profit organization that provides digital education for communities around the world. His blog is at http://www.williamkamkwamba.com.

These are some of the additional projects Kamkwamba has launched:

  1. Paid for his cousin Geoffrey and several other cousins to go back to school
  2. Paid for his friend Gilbert to go back to school
  3. Helped Gilbert start a video and music studio with an internet café
  4. Paid for his neighbors’ kids to go to back to school
  5. Provided solar panels for his parents’ home and for every home in his village
  6. Installed drip lines to allow his father to plant a second maize crop each year
  7. Built a maize mill that gives his parents extra money
  8. Bought two pickup trucks for his father to carry his crops to market
  9. Helped rebuild, expand, and upgrade Wimbe Primary School in 2010
  10. With the help of the Pearson Foundation, added 10.000 new books to the school library
  11. Designed a kit with DC pump and solar panel for farmers to cultivate bigger gardens
  12. Designed a drill for water wells and a windmill kit for electricity
  13. Opened a small taxi business with three minibuses
  14. Created WK Airport Shuttle to provide transportation between the airport and hotels

Kamkwamba married Olivia Scott of North Carolina whom he met at Dartmouth and they live in town near his village. Olivia has a doctorate in international education and does research in Malawi.

See Kamkwamba’s site at: https://williamkamkwamba.typepad.com.

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