Best use of a Recycled Bicycle

William Kamkwamba, the industrious son of Malawian subsistence farmers, used little more than an old bicycle, scrap metal, and a basic science textbook to build a windmill that powered electric lights in his family’s village home.

Kamkwamba’s story is as heart-warming as it is inspirational. Forced to drop out of secondary school at the age of 14 because his family couldn’t afford the mandatory fees, he passed his days reading library books and foraging for useful materials at the scrap yard. Guided by a description of a windmill he found in an old science textbook and a self-taught understanding of electricity, Kamkwamba fashioned a small prototype and, eventually, a 5m-high operational windmill. A bicycle frame formed the body of the windmill; lightweight and sturdy, it could handle strong winds, but wouldn’t overpower the tower to which it was fixed. Blades fashioned from flattened PVC pipes replaced pedals, rotating the shaft and sprocket, to turn a tire which powered a generator.

The surprising and inspiring story of Kamkwamba’s magetsi a mphepo (“electric wind”) catapulted him out of the bitter reality of Malawian poverty and into the international lime light. His international debut at TED Global in 2007 generated a ferocious buzz and his memoir, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, which he co-wrote with author and journalist Bryan Mealer, spent 5 weeks on the NY Times bestseller list. His book chronicles this remarkable process, set amidst a backdrop of impoverished village life, devastating famine, and skeptical onlookers.

To quote former vice president and Novel laureate Al Gore, “Kamkwamba’s achievements with wind energy should serve as a model of what one person, with an inspired idea, can do to tackle the crisis we face.”