In 2002, I built my first of several windmills to provide my family with electricity and irrigation. This was in Malawi, where a terrible drought and famine had destroyed our maize crops and killed thousands of people. The famine also forced me to drop out of secondary school because my father could no longer afford my fees. Determined to continue my education, I began visiting a local library, funded by the Americans, where I quickly fell in love with science. As the hunger clawed its way across our country, the library was where I escaped and became lost in discussions of electromagnetism, simple motors and electricity — my favorite topic, since only 2 percent of Malawi enjoyed such a luxury.
I didn’t read English well, so I mainly taught myself these things by studying the pictures and diagrams. By the time I saw my first windmill on the cover of an American textbook called Using Energy, I was able to apply all this previous knowledge and set out to build my own. Within six months, I’d constructed a windmill that provided my family with continuous electricity and completely transformed the way we lived. A later machine allowed us to irrigate a small garden to grow produce year-round. (You can read the whole story in my new book, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, which I wrote with Bryan Mealer.)
People often ask me, “So how did you manage such a thing?” Well, I designed and built my machine in much the same way many Africans are getting by these days: by taking simple, everyday materials and being creative. All across the continent, people are using innovative solutions to address the biggest problems, such as lack of water and electricity, and to find ways poor people can easily make a living.
Most of the materials for my windmill were found in the scrapyard of a nearby tobacco estate. This place was filled with abandoned cars and trucks just rusting in the sun, in addition to old water pumps, coil springs and other random metals. Unfortunately, the school where I’d dropped out was just across the road, and as I went exploring, my mates would tease me from the playground, calling out:
“Ay, there goes William again, playing in the garbage!”
But where they saw garbage, I saw treasure and opportunity.
For example, I found a rusted tractor fan that was perfect for my rotor. I then discovered an old shock absorber. After banging it against a rock and knocking loose the metal casing, the piston inside made for a great shaft. For blades, I took plastic PVC pipe from my friend Gilbert’s bathhouse and cut it down the middle with a bow saw. I then held it over a small fire next to my mother’s kitchen until it began to melt and bubble. I quickly pressed the pipe flat, and then let it cool. After that, I used the saw to carve a set of four blades. For washers, I collected Carlsberg beer bottle caps outside the nearby Ofesi Boozing Centre, then pounded them flat and punched a hole through the middle.
I used my father’s broken bicycle as a frame, then welded the rotor, blades and shaft to the sprocket. When the wind blew, the blades acted as pedals and turned, causing the chain to spin the back wheel, where I’d attached a 12-volt bicycle dynamo (my most prized possession that took me months to find!). Wires ran from my dynamo down through my roof, where I’d attached a small bulb. When the wind blew, the light flickered yellow and bright. The copper wires themselves had been stripped from old radio motors.
It wasn’t only my windmill that required creativity. I didn’t have any tools, forcing me to make my own. My hammer was a thick piece of steel I’d discovered in the scrapyard. Screwdrivers were easily made from bicycle spokes ground to a flat edge, and plastic bags were melted and fashioned into handles (this was also how I made my hunting knives). For a drill, I stuck a long nail into my mother’s cooking fire until it became red hot. Even with my maize-cob handle, drilling jobs took hours and hours, as the nail would always have to be reheated.
Once my windmill was operating and producing electricity, I hooked the dynamo to a car battery in order to store power (otherwise I’d have no lights when the wind died). I attached four bulbs throughout my family’s compound that were controlled by homemade light switches — made from bicycle spokes and PVC pipe, melted and shaped into a wall box. When you pushed a button, the spoke connected two wires and completed the circuit. The buttons themselves were cut from my old pair of rubber flip-flops.
As I mentioned, my wiring was mostly pulled from old radios and wasn’t insulated. One day wires accidentally crossed and nearly caused a fire. And since my roof was made from grass and wooden beams, that would have been a disaster. So taking several ideas from my physics book, I made a circuit breaker that was modeled after an electric bell. In such a contraption, electricity passes through a metal coil and turns it into a magnet, which pulls a metal hammer that bangs the bell. However, during this motion, the hammer also trips a switch and breaks the circuit, returning to its original position. Of course, this happens about a dozen times per second.
Using this concept, I installed two nails inside a PVC casing, then wrapped them both with copper wire. In the middle I installed a bicycle spoke attached to a small magnet that I’d busted off a stereo speaker. When current passed through the nails, they became magnetized. Because magnets both push and pull, the stereo magnet stayed balanced in the middle, not knowing where to go. But in the event the wires crossed, the surge in electricity pushed the stereo magnet into one of the nails, breaking the circuit in the process.
With the windmill producing electricity, we could now read at night. Most of all, we didn’t have to rely on kerosene lamps that produced thick black smoke and sent my sisters into coughing fits. It also allowed neighbors from other villages to stop by and charge their mobile phones. When I’d wake up in the morning, I’d discover a line down the road. After a local newspaper learned about my windmill, my story attracted worldwide attention. With the assistance of generous well-wishers, I was soon able to return to school.
In the last few years, I’ve been thinking of inventions that could solve some of Africa’s other big problems. I’m now currently finishing high school at African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, South Africa, a pan-African prep school attended by some of the smartest, most innovative students on the continent. I feel very fortunate to be among so many great people. Recently, several of us started something called the Doers Club, an organization that proposes necessary inventions, then tries to accomplish them.
Our first project is to develop a steam engine that can be used to power a water pump or windmill. In old steam engines, the water was boiled using a firebox filled with coal or wood. But in many parts of Africa where there’s no electricity, especially in Malawi, many of the trees have been cut down for things like cooking, farming or building shelters to dry tobacco. And this deforestation only leads to floods and drought. It’s such a problem that my mother and sisters now walk three hours each day to collect wood for our supper.
So not wishing to use wood to power my engine, I thought of something even better and everlasting: the sun. Instead of a fire box, we’re connecting a solar oven made from reflective foil. When the oven boils the water, the steam pressure will move through a valve and push and pull a piston, which will then turn a wheel connected to the pump. Right now we’re focused on getting the solar oven just right. So as they say, it’s still on the drawing board.
In order to pump clean drinking water, you must first have a deep-enough well. This is a problem in poor villages because drilling such a borehole requires heavy machinery that’s expensive to rent, and if you expect the government to grace you with such a gift, you could be waiting forever. So I’m also designing a simple borehole drill that works like a tobacco press, which all of us in Malawi know how to use. A normal press operates by turning a giant threaded bolt that crushed the tobacco with every crank. The drill will work the same way by driving a massive sharp screw into the earth. All the hard work will be handled by a system of gears, so even children would be able to operate it.
Once I’m out of school, I hope to perfect these inventions and take this knowledge into villages across Malawi, then eventually other parts of Africa. As an inventor in Africa, I know I’m not alone. Recently at Maker Faire Africa, an annual convention for fellow hacks and innovators held in Accra, Ghana, some of Africa’s great talent was on display. Shamsudeen Napara of northern Ghana used scrap metal to invent a simple maize-seed planter — modeled after a medicinal pill dispenser — that increases a farmer’s planting speed threefold. Dominic Wanjihia from Somalia created an “evapocooler” using an iron-sheet box that uses water evaporation to keep camel’s milk cool, allowing herders to transport it to markets in very hot conditions.
In every country there are people doing projects just like this. There are many of us out there, and I’m convinced that if we could harness even a third of this talent and creativity, Africa wouldn’t have to rely so much on corrupt governments and international aid for assistance. Tapping our own creativity and energy, we can help transform Africa into a home for innovation, rather than charity, and a place of leaders instead of victims.