William Kambwamba was born in 1987 to a family of farmers in rural Malawi. When a prolonged drought caused their crops to fail and the family’s income to decline, Mr. Kambwamba was forced to drop out of school due to a lack of funds for school fees. Rather than lament his apparent ill fate, 14 year old William Kamkwamba used his additional spare time to visit the local library and teach himself about electronics and the generation of electricity. Using spare bicycle parts, blue gum trees, and items found at the local dump, young Mr. Kamkwamba then built a sizable windmill by hand and installed lights in his family’s home that were powered by wind energy. The windmill’s ability to generate electricity drew neighbors wanting to charge their cell phones locally, rather than trekking with them to the nearest town.
Within a few years, Mr. Kamkwamba was something of a local hero. By 2006, his windmill drew the attention of a reporter from The Daily Times in Blantyre, the country’s commercial capital. The Daily Times article in turn attracted international attention. In 2007, Mr. Kamkwamba was featured in the Wall Street Journal and invited to give a TED talk in Arusha, Tanzania. His moving speech led to several venture capitalists offering to support his education. Mr. Kamkwamba made use of the funds after securing a spot at the elite African Leadership Academy (ALA) in South Africa, from which he graduated in 2010. (For more on ALA and its founder, Fred Swaniker, see the Nov. 2, 2014 post on this blog).