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John Dodig
Noodle Expert Member

December 18, 2019

When William Kamkwamba was 14, he built a windmill in Malawi to generate electricity and pump water for his family. Now he's a Dartmouth grad inspiring thousands of innovators.

In 2002, Malawi faced what the BBC called its “worst-ever" famine.

Stemming from an extreme drought, the famine left more than three-quarters of the landlocked southeast African country’s population “on the verge of starvation" (to quote the BBC) — seven million people were seriously affected.

Enter William Kamkwamba, a 14-year-old boy whose family couldn’t afford his $80 annual tuition during the famine. Thirsty for knowledge and desperate to make life better for his family and his fellow Malawians, the young man started visiting his local library. It was there that he learned about bicycle dynamo systems — basically bike headlights that run on pedal power. This sparked an idea in him, one that grew into a full-blown aspiration when he saw a photo of a windmill in a library book.

After scouring trash heaps for parts, he started tinkering with designs. They included bicycle components, a fan blade from an old tractor, plastic piping, and more unglamorous materials. Met with skepticism from his community, he hid his true intentions, saying that he was “only making something for juju," using the word for a magic spell in traditional West African religious systems. This seemed to satisfy his neighbors.

After many tweaks (and many electrical shocks), Kamkwamba used the strange-looking 16-foot-tall windmill first to power a small lightbulb, and later to send electricity to his family’s mud-brick home. Soon, the BBC notes, members of his community were lined up to charge their cellphones (only 2 percent of Malawi’s population has access to in-home electricity).

In the years since, Kamkwamba has built even more (and increasingly complex) windmills, water pumps, and other solar- and wind-powered devices. He’s been on television, given a <a href="{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow" }, written a book{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow" }, been the subject of a documentary{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow" }, and graduated from [Dartmouth College](" target="_blank">TED Talk with a degree in environmental studies and a minor in engineering. And he’s not yet 30. Kamkwamba illustrates just how consequential a great idea, executed well, can be.

Are you interested in improvement, entrepreneurship, and STEM? Use the Noodle college search tool to find the schools that will help you take your ideas to the next level.