polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Lighting Up the World

by Anna Fogel

As I drove through the Malawian countryside at night, I was struck by the total darkness. It is almost inky in its completeness – on this night, it was cloudy so there were no stars or moon. The only light was from the headlights of the car and the rare oncoming car, and the few moments when we’d pass a trading center which was dotted with kerosene lamps and candles. Some estimate as few as 2% of the population in Malawi have access to electricity, and as you drive through towns during the day, it is hard to miss the number of stores which advertise batteries and cell phone charging services.

William Kamkwamba, author of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, grew up in Wimbe, a small village in Malawi, which relied on subsistence farming, mainly of maize, the staple food here and in much of East Africa, and tobacco, the largest cash crop in the country. The “hunger season” hits Malawi every year from December to February, and while the crops grow, the entire economy slows down. In the cities, this means less trading and business, but in the villages this often refers to a literal hunger season, when families have run out of their food storage and are still waiting for harvest season, which starts in April or May. For a country whose population is 80% rural and whose economy is driven by agriculture, this has a significant impact on the population. However, during difficult harvest years, the country can quickly plunge into famine, which struck all of Malawi in 2001 to 2002. Kamkwamba’s book describes his experience growing up in rural Malawi, his family’s and village’s experience during the famine of 2001, and the inspiration this provided him to develop renewable energy sources.

Kamkwamba, who was looking for something to keep him occupied after he had to drop out of school during the famine because of his inability to pay the school fees, was inspired by English physics and energy books he picked up in the library. The English scientific vocabulary was often over his head, but he quickly picked up many basic energy and physics concepts from the diagrams. He began to focus on renewable energy, especially windmills, as one of the only natural resources widely available in this small, land-locked country, is wind. He saw it as a way to provide much-needed electricity and water for irrigation:

“All I needed was a windmill, and then I could have lights. No more kerosene lamps that burned our eyes and sent us gasping for breath. With a windmill, I could stay awake at night reading instead of going to bed at seven with the rest of Malawi. But most important, a windmill could also rotate a pump for water and irrigation. Having just come out of the hunger – and with famine still affecting many parts of the country – the idea of a water pump now seemed incredibly necessary. If we hooked it up to our shallow well at home, a water pump could allow us to harvest twice a year. While the rest of Malawi went hungry during December and January, we’d be hauling in our second crop of maize. It meant no more watering tobacco nursery beds in the dambo, which broke your back and wasted time…No more skipping breakfast, no more dropping out of school. With a windmill, we’d finally release ourselves from the troubles of darkness and hunger…The windmill meant more than just power, it was freedom.” (159)

In The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, Kamkwamba describes the slow and difficult process of building a windmill, using pieces and supplies he scavenged in Wimbe, while many of his friends were in school. He spent afternoons in the scrap yard, using the frame of a bicycle for the body of the windmill, drainage pipe dug up from a friend’s house for PVC pipe, and Carlsberg caps as washers. Villagers from nearby areas came to charge cell phones, and marvel at the lighting system he built in his home, the only lit home in Wimbe.

His story spread among journalists in Malawi, and in another amazing use of technology, was soon picked up by an NGO worker who wrote about the story on a blog, which was then noticed by a Nigerian blogger who was directing TEDGlobal in 2007. TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) is an amazing organization, which in addition to spreading knowledge by posting talks and inspiring information on their website (www.ted.com), also organizes an annual meeting uniting entrepreneurs, scientists and innovators from around the world. Kamkwamba was accepted as a TED fellow for the 2007 conference in Tanzania. As he explained, it changed his life – for the first time, he flew in an airplane, saw a laptop, learned about internet, and met incredible Africans and entrepreneurs from around the globe. And he told his story of building a windmill to a global stage.

His life has taken off from there – presenting at the World Economic Forum in 2008 and meeting Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika, using money from donors to improve his entire village (in which now every home has iron sheets rather than thatch, covered water buckets, malaria pills and mosquito nets). He dug a borehole for a deep well, saving his mother 2 hours of carrying water each day, and built a solar-powered pump which irrigates his father’s field and is the only automatic water system in the vicinity, used by all the women in Wimbe. And with donor money, he has now gone back to school – and is completing high-school in South Africa.

I initially picked up the book in my search for anything on Malawi, a small, largely unnoticed country in East Africa, sandwiched among larger neighbors who have had more dramatic and violent histories. It is an inspiring, fascinating story about not only development in Malawi, but the potential for energy and inventiveness in thinking about how to spread energy to large parts of the world that are cut off from electricity and traditional energy sources and grids.

Kamkwamba thought about the toys he made as a child, and explained: “I began to imagine what it would be like if all of those pinwheels had been real, if every home and shop in the trading center each had a spinning machine to catch the wind above the rooftops. At night, the entire valley would sparkle with light like a clear, starry sky.” (235)