Book Review: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

Book by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer, HarperCollins, 2009. Reviewed by Barbara Merz.

This book was my companion while delayed at an airport recently. Right beside the Starbucks café at LAX airport waiting for my flight to Sydney I noticed an advert with a small Afghani girl with bright eyes and a determined face. It read ‘Role Model.’ Fellow travelers were stopping by, perhaps jarred by the message. The poster was part of a broader campaign by an international humanitarian organisation to highlight the inspiring stories of young people from the developing world who overcome barriers they face. These barriers include lack of adequate food, security, or education. They highlight young people who are finding ways to overcome poverty and depravity of opportunity. The campaign’s message aims to engage Western donors respectfully with those who face lives of hardship.

William Kamkwamba’s story in The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is a testament to that message in action. Kamkwamba built a windmill in his village from scraps of metal and an old bicycle. By doing so, he brought electricity and running water to his community.

The beginning of the book paints a picture of growing up in Malawi in the midst of drought, famine and corruption. This is not the Africa of a distant past; the latest drought gripped Malawi in 2002. Without a social safety net one season of drought tipped small farming families into starvation.

Kamkwamba’s family could not afford to send him to school. He began a small business in fixing radios, allowing him to experiment with the electrical components. While his friends were at school he began reading trade magazines and textbooks at the local library about power generation. In one such book he recounts the words which changed his life: “Energy is all around you every day…sometimes energy needs to be converted to another form before it is useful to us.”

He knew that wind was a consistent but untapped energy source in Malawi. We learn that only 2% of Malawians have electricity. The few who do have access to power have it supplied by the government. Obtaining a connection requires long applications, approvals, and tolerating frequent blackouts. Lack of electricity for the majority of Malawians has lead to massive deforestation as wood is gathered to stoke cooking fires. Bald landscapes have no protection against heavy rains, which then wash away topsoil and its minerals. This in turn leads to lower crop yields. Runoff also clogs river dams, shutting down the turbine which fuels central power production.

Kamkwamba recounts how he slowly assembled his materials to test his idea for turning the wind into electricity. He then built a sixteen-foot bamboo platform to attach a mass of blades, scrap metal, tractor parts, a bike chain, and rubber wheel. His experiment worked. He powered four lights to his family’s home and another windmill pumped water to his family’s fields.

This book can be criticised as a romanticisation of poverty. The author is a poster boy for grassroots ingenuity. However, without support, those roots could not grow into systemic change. What the book does not address is the important but tedious work to bring local solutions to scale. Without a social safety net, Malawi remains vulnerable to bad weather which forces many of its people into widespread suffering.

It was an African journalist who uncovered Kamkwamba’s story and began spreading it through newspapers and blogs. Eventually, the co-author of this book, Bryan Mealer, translated the story into a perfectly paced airport hardcover. Meanwhile, Kamkwamba was invited to meet other African entrepreneurs. He was introduced to computers and the Internet for the first time and was then invited to share his story overseas. Kamkwamba is a role model. Stories like his need telling to reengage stakeholders creatively on ways to reduce poverty in Africa.

To watch a short video of Kamkwamba telling his own story see:

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