news analysis advocacy
AfricaFocus Bookshop
New Gift CDs
China & Africa
tips on searching

Search AfricaFocus and 9 Partner Sites



Visit the AfricaFocus
Country Pages

Burkina Faso
Cape Verde
Central Afr. Rep.
Congo (Brazzaville)
Congo (Kinshasa)
Côte d'Ivoire
Equatorial Guinea
São Tomé
Sierra Leone
South Africa
South Sudan
Western Sahara

Get AfricaFocus Bulletin by e-mail! | on your newsreader!

Print this page

Africa: Home-Grown Wind Power

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Oct 4, 2009 (091004)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

Malawian William Kamkwamba, who was forced to drop out of school in 2002 at the age of 14 because his parents couldn't pay the school fees, is now the author of an inspiring book on how he built a homemade windmill out of bicycle parts and other scraps to power his parent's home in the small village of Masitala. His invention attracted international attention, and he is now on a U.S. book tour after completing his secondary education at the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg.

AfricaFocus readers have often asked for more stories showing positive African initiatives, and I think this clearly fits the description. I haven't read the book yet, but there is ample material on-line for you to make up your own mind. See, for example,, and the review in The Guardian (, which reminds readers that Kamkwamba's creativity is typical of hundreds of others in Africa and around the world who rely on their wits to survive. Kamkwamba's blog, with reviews and a schedule of appearances, is at, and his coauthor Bryan Mealer's blog is at

The best introduction to the book is the short youtube video featuring Kamkwamba himself. See

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains a short review and the book by Mark Frauenfelder, and a short question-and-answer session with journalist Bryan Mealer, who worked with Kamkwamba to write the book.

For a 5-minute PRI interview with Kamkwamba and Mealer, visit /

The potential of wind energy for Africa does not entirely depend on village entrepreneurs using their own resources, but more top-down ventures might take some lessons from the example as they expand their efforts. At an International Workshop on Small Scale Wind Energy for Developing Countries, held in Nairobi last month with joint Danish and Kenyan sponsorship, one paper (abstract included below) cited the multiple problems of sustaining a recent wind power project.

The Nairobi seminar is one sign of rapidly growing interest in Africa in expanding wind power, from a very small installed base. The African Wind Energy Association will be hosting an African Wind Power conference in Cape Town in May 2001. (, and a South African company boasts installation of small wind turbines at a number of sites in South Africa, Namibia, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe

To purchase The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer, visit

Another AfricaFocus Bulletin, posted on the web today but not sent out by e-mail, contains background on the high world-wide potential of wind power, from the just published book by Lester Brown, Plan B 4.0 (

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on the environment and climate change, see


Many thanks to those of you who have recently sent in a voluntary subscription payment to support AfricaFocus Bulletin. AfricaFocus is and will remain free to all readers. But it depends on those of you who do decide to provide support.

If you have never sent in such a payment, and have supported AfricaFocus in the past, but not yet this year, and if you are able to do so, please help AfricaFocus reach more people with reliable information on Africa. Send in a check or pay on-line by credit card. See for details.

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++++++++

African Dynamo

Review of William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

by Mark Frauenfelder

Mark Frauenfelder is the editor-in-chief of Make magazine and the founder of Boing Boing. He is currently writing a book on the do-it-yourself movement for Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin.

September 29, 2009

How a Malawian teenager harnessed the power of the wind.

William Kamkwamba's parents couldn't afford the $80 yearly tuition for their son's school. The boy sneaked into the classroom anyway, dodging administrators for a few weeks until they caught him. Still emaciated from the recent deadly famine that had killed friends and neighbors, he went back to work on his family's corn and tobacco farm in rural Malawi, Africa.

With no hope of getting the funds to go back to school, William continued his education by teaching himself, borrowing books from the small library at the elementary school in his village. One day, when William was 14, he went to the library searching for an English-Chichewa dictionary to find out what the English word "grapes" meant, and came across a fifth-grade science book called Using Energy. Describing this moment in his autobiography, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (co-written with Bryan Mealer), William wrote, "The book has since changed my life."

Using Energy described how windmills could be used to generate electricity. Only two percent of Malawians have electricity, and the service is notoriously unreliable. William decided an electric windmill was something he wanted to make. Illuminating his house and the other houses in his village would mean that people could read at night after work. A windmill to pump water would mean that they could grow two crops a year rather than one, grow vegetable gardens, and not have to spend two hours a day hauling water. "A windmill meant more than just power," he wrote, "it was freedom."

For an educated adult living in a developed nation, designing and building a wind turbine that generates electricity is something to be proud of. For a half-starved, uneducated boy living in a country plagued with drought, famine, poverty, disease, a cruelly corrupt government, crippling superstitions, and low expectations, it's another thing altogether. It's nothing short of monumental.

William scoured trash bins and junkyards for materials he could use to build his windmill. With only a couple of wrenches at his disposal, and unable to afford even nuts and bolts, he collected things that most people would consider garbage slime-clogged plastic pipes, a broken bicycle, a discarded tractor fan and assembled them into a wind-powered dynamo. For a soldering iron, he used a stiff piece of wire heated in a fire. A bent bicycle spoke served as a size adapter for his wrenches.

Months later, in front of a crowd of disbelievers who had scoffed at him for behaving strangely, William lashed his machine to the top of a 16-foot tower made from blue gum tree branches. As the blades began turning in the breeze, a car light bulb in William's hand started to glow. In the weeks that followed, William went on to wire his house with four light bulbs and two radios, installing switches made from rubber sandals, and scratch-building a circuit breaker to keep the thatch roof of his house from catching fire.

He begged his parents to send him to school he had big dreams for modernizing his village and needed to learn more math, physics, and electricity to realize them but they barely had enough money to feed him and his five sisters.

William and his windmill remained a local curiosity for a number of months, until the head of a national teacher's organization saw the windmill and recognized the boy's accomplishment as something extraordinary. A media firestorm ensued, with newspaper articles, blog posts, radio stories, and a presentation at TED Africa in Tanzania (TED stands for Technology Entertainment Design), where William, who didn't know about laptop computers and had never heard of Google, discovered airplanes, mattresses, hotels, air conditioning, and the mind-boggling concept of having as much food as you wanted whenever you wanted it. Befriended by Tom Rielly, TED's irrepressible and well-connected partnership director, William was taken on a tour of the United States, where he met many high-tech millionaires who were charmed by the instantly likable underdog who never complained about the lousy cards he got dealt in the game of life. They happily contributed to William's plans to electrify, irrigate, and educate his village, as well as pay his tuition at the prestigious African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg.

With so many tales of bloody hopelessness coming out of Africa, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind reads like a novel with a happy ending, even though it's just the beginning for this remarkable young man, now 21 years old. I have no doubt that William who is rapidly becoming a symbol of promise and possibility for the people Africa will be leading the way.

Question & Answer on Bryan Mealer's Blog

How did you hear about William?

I'd just finished writing my Congo book, All Things Must Fight to Live (, and was feeling pretty burned out and disillusioned about Africa. I'd spent an intense five years covering the cycle of war, disease, rape, and pillage that's become the calling card of the continent. I'd struggled with this in Congo, but felt there was little time to cover anything else but that grueling and horrific conflict. You'd always look out for positive stories, and I'm sure they were all around me, but the war always had a way of masking them in its filth. Africans would usually be the ones to point out this discrepancy, and I'd never have a good answer. The week I turned in my Congo book, my agent called and told me to look at the Wall Street Journal. William and his windmills were on the front page. I thought, 'Wow, this is exactly the story I've been looking to tell.'

How did you guys go about writing the story?

I spent the next year going back to his village in central Malawi, living with his family, meeting all of his cousins and neighbors, interviewing everyone I could find. I spent weeks just interviewing people about magic, which played a huge role in his childhood. The famine took most of the other time. Since William's English was still improving, I interviewed him through a translator - Blessings Chikakula - which allowed William to speak comfortably in Chichewa, cracking jokes and telling these great, often silly stories. He's a really funny guy. Eventually, I was able to mine these core elements of his speech and give him an English voice. Each night after work, I'd charge my laptop and transcribe notes under lights powered by his whirling windmill outside.

How did this experience affect you?

It was an incredible journey, and along the way, William and I became very good friends. As he often says, "I saw a need to change something, but couldn't wait on others to do it for me." His story counters the stereotype of Africans as helpless subjects of corrupt politicians and international aid groups. For once, I didn't come home cynical and depressed. I was seeing Africa through his eyes, and it's a much more hopeful lens. It was exactly the remedy I needed after those years in Congo, and helped remind me of why I'd fallen in love with the continent in the first place.

What happens to William now?

William has received a good share of international attention because of his story, but he seems determined not to rest on his laurels. Getting an education and providing for his family have always been his two major goals, and he's still very committed to achieving them. Right now he's finishing his studies at African Leadership Academy, a pan-African prep school in Johannesburg, South Africa, that's filled with other young superheroes like himself. After that, he plans to attend college in America or South Africa and continue his effort to power rural Africa. He wants to teach young people in small villages how to build and maintain windmills to provide electricity and pump water for crops. That way, families won't be so vulnerable to drought and famine. His story will definitely be worth following. He's also the subject of a forthcoming documentary, Moving Windmills, that kind of picks up where the book leaves off. I've seen some of the footage and it's pretty powerful.

International Workshop on Small Scale Wind Energy for Developing Countries

Sponsored by the Royal Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, and Institute of Energy and Environmental Technology (IEET) of Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT)

September 14-16, 2009, Nairobi, Kenya

[Report contains abstracts of a number of papers including this one]

Wind Energy Blows a Bright Future for Tsagwa Village

Njeri Waruingi Kahiu, Institute of Energy and Environmental Technology ,Jomo Kenyatta University, Kenya

The availability of electricity in rural areas of Kenya is about ten percent (10%) resulting in deforestation, use of scarce resources to buy expensive fossil based fuels and in-door air pollution. To mitigate against these challenges a novel concept was developed in 2003. In the Wind Home System (WHS) concept each household was to be wired, a solar battery and energy saving lights provided. The battery would be recharged every three to four days. The nearest charging station was forty kilometres away. With wind speeds ranging from 5m/s to 12m/s, wind generators were a viable option. To demonstrate this concept of providing clean energy in Tsagwa village in Kilifi District, north of Mombasa Town on the East Africa coast, a grant of US$48,321 was received from the United Nations Development Programme, Global Environmental Facility, Small Grants Programme to provide a wind charging station within the vicinity.

The charging station was a hybrid of two wind turbines and three solar photovoltaic panels. Each of the solar photovoltaic panels was rated at eighty five (85) watts. The wind turbines, each supported by a twelve (12) metre guyed steel lattice tower, comprised of three phase generators with a maximum output of 800W and a rated output 600 W at 12m/s. The rotor blades were made of glass-fibre reinforced polyester with a diameter of 2.2 metres. The twelve pole brushless permanent magnet generator had a maximum frequency of ninety (90) hertz. The alternating current was converted into direct current in the voltage control system, which contained a built in rectifier bridge. A dump load prevented overcharging of the batteries. Power from each generator was stored in six, 200 Ah lead/acid batteries. The system voltage was 24V. The battery charging station was housed in a community centre which comprised of two workshops and a multipurpose room. The centre was equipped with one computer, printer, telephone, VCR and TV for recreational and educational purposes.

The community contribution was land, materials for the community centre and labour for all construction relating to the project. It had been envisaged that a total of 100 households would be provided with the WHS but only sixty four were provided with this service. The shortfall was due to failure of the community to honour their pledge and the project money was used to build the community centre.

To sustain the project a caretaker was appointed to manage the day to day affairs of the community centre with co-ordination with the management committee. All connected consumers were to pay fifty shillings per month towards the caretakers' salary. Income was to be obtained by hiring out of the workshops, battery charging fee, community telephone charges, wiring charges for new customers, educational and recreation activities in the community centre.

The wind charging station initially worked well but six months into commissioning problems started. One wind generator experienced fatal failure when the magnets came off from the generator rotor affecting the performance of the charging station. There was no repair shop in Mombasa which could handle the job. At extra cost the rotor was returned to the supplier and he supplied a new one. Soon after the other wind generator failed and on inspection it was found that water had entered into the bearing housing causing corrosion of the shaft and contamination of the lubricant. Identical bearings and seals were not available on the market and the bearings were replaced with the nearest equivalent but the wind turbine did not perform.

The project demonstrated that wind energy does work but delivery of energy services is much more than technology functioning. The people dimension is a crucial. The main challenges were lack of spare parts, use of non-deep cycle batteries resulting in short lifespan, poor community participation and lack of ownership by the community. Lessons learned from this project are first, it does not follow that all people living close together can unite for a common purpose. Other criteria like track record of other successful community ventures should have been considered. It was wrongly assumed that lighting is such a dire need that in a community of one hundred households a volunteer would be easily available.

Secondly, the grant should have included a one year stabilisation period for promotion and marketing. An entrepreneur could have been identified through competitive bidding to manage the community centre for a year to assess the actual revenue.

A lot of effort and time have been invested in this project and the wind speeds in Tsagwa are adequate. Installation of more sturdy wind generators and a management structure based on the energy business model would ensure the success of this demonstration project and enhance adoption of small wind energy systems in developing countries.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

AfricaFocus Bulletin can be reached at Please write to this address to subscribe or unsubscribe to the bulletin, or to suggest material for inclusion. For more information about reposted material, please contact directly the original source mentioned. For a full archive and other resources, see

Read more on |Africa Economy & Development||Africa Climate Change & Environment|

URL for this file: