The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind -- fantastic new book about a how a Malawian teenager harnessed the power of the wind

I reviewed The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind for Good. I think it's one of the best books I've ever read. Here's an excerpt of my review:

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.

Read the rest of my review at GOOD.

(It was very exciting to read that William's favorite magazine is Make!)


  1. I always get jealous of these poor people living in a part of the world where ingenuity can make a big reverberating difference in the lives of a large group of people.

    Living in the fully-developed world, there’s nothing really left to do or improve here, so I don’t really leave my couch or try anything.

    Oh well, maybe next incarnation.</troll>

  2. Stop moaning about the economy
    Stop complaining the game is fixed
    Stop being so ungrateful for the life that you live

    I love this guy. He really put things into perspective for me.

  3. I am sitting in the commons on campus, tears welling up in the corners of my eyes as I read this…but I don’t care, if I look like a goof…this is very beautiful.

  4. Yeah, that’s what its all about! William is a hero. I wish we spent more time and money celebrating people like this instead of athletes and actors.

  5. “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.”

    OK, so what’s wrong with this picture?

  6. Watching William experience NYC for the first time was a moving and humbling experience. He’s a remarkable human being and embodies the one thing we all need more of these days: hope. Thank you, Mark!

  7. His book made me cry, too, in a good way.

    If you would like to help fund William’s projects and education, you can donate to his PayPal account at his blog.

  8. I lived in Malawi for 7 1/2 years. I helped a Malawian learn a trade (optician) and paid for his first year of college. He has since worked his way through school and went back to Malawi to work. When Malawians get their education outside, and when they see what the developed world is like, they often don’t go back. The best thing about William is that he will probably use his gumption and ingenuity to make Malawi a better place. What a guy!

    And PaulR, good point. If you only knew how powerful the tobacco business is in Malawi. It is their primary export, from which comes the greatest portion of their foreign currency to buy products that aren’t produced in Malawi, like medicines, electronics, cars, etc. The government is in cahoots with the tobacco companies, which are a cartel and fix prices to the Malawian farmers. There’s more. It’s complicated and evil. People who use tobacco products don’t realize how much they contribute to human suffering and oppression all over the world.

  9. It is a crime to be smart. Such people are sent to schools where teachers harass them and insult them and teach them to be stupid.

  10. @#17, Telaquapacky,

    Thank you for explaining that. I wasn’t sure what Paul was getting at. I’m not a tobacco user myself and really don’t follow it as a commodity.

    Good info.

  11. awesome story but i am a little sick of this kind of video showing the third-world guy looking all full of wonder at the glories of new york with the statue of liberty in the background… like new york is the best place in the world, totally free of corruption with all their energy issues figured out.

  12. “New York is the best place in the world, totally free of corruption with all their energy issues figured out!”


  13. In the US how could you consider going off the grid to harness your own energy when a simple act such as going to purchase your windmill parts from Home Depot effectively means being put on a terrorist watch list.

  14. mrsbug:
    My question was more straightforward: Why is the farm producing tobacco – which, I take pains to point out, you can’t eat – especially after a drought where people were starving to death at a rate of about 5% of the population in 2006?

    As I’ve discussed elsewhere on BB, what’s the point of being able to buy electronics or cars if it means you starve to death.

    I know, those are two different sets of people: those buying the imported goods and those doing the dying.

    See here:
    Who caused the Malawi famine? from January 2003:
    Page 2: “The decision to sell Malawi’s grain reserves followed advice from the IMF to reduce operational costs and the level of buffer stocks held from 167,000 tons to 60,000 tons, in order to repay a South African bank for a commercial loan of $300m, incurred by the National Food Reserve Agency (NFRA) when it was established as a quasi-independent agency.

    The IMF further advised that the maize be exported to neighbouring countries, in disregard of the impending food crisis in Malawi. In the event, and evidently in clear defiance of the IMF, the Malawi Government sold almost all of the 167,000 tons reserve, much of it on local markets, to private traders, the new agents of the partially liberalised grain market. Traders stockpiled it and later profiteered from hunger.

    And further along, page 5:
    “The Catholic Commission for Peace released a list of names of purchasers of SGR maize, which included a number of prominent people who, “knew about the coming food price hike, so they bought grain from the SGR and withdrew these stocks from the market, driving prices up and creating an artificial shortage.”

    Echoes of the Irish Potato Famine…

  15. Tuition to get a basic education – brought to you by the WTO and the IMF. How many other William’s are there out there who could be going to school and creating innovations for their community and the world?

    On a more general note, local technologies and knowledge have been undermined by too many outside agendas. It always amazes me that it amazes us that people can figure things out for themselves in the first place. How do you think we survived as humans in many challenging environments?

  16. This is just a fantastic story and shows what drive and determination can achieve.

    There are many good points made here regarding drought, exports and the power of the government.

    For a number of years I have worked with an NGO which works with communities on developing technologies. Could be wind, hydro, redesigning ploughs for donkey.

    for me, it is what happens outside of the project which is most inspiring. We have seen women start their own hairdressing salons once small micro hydro schemes have been installed,allowing them to start their own businesses and keeping wealth within their village, Maasai women’s group deciding to lobby their local authorities on isssues or simple floating gardens to ensure a crop/livelihood.

    But for me, it is all about people sharing their ideas and knowledge. Local technologies are so much more effective than people/organisations who try to impose solutions.

  17. I just saw him on Jon Stewart, where can I buy the book? Just goes to show that if we can educate children in poor countries how much better the world can be.

  18. I got my library to add this book based on this writeup, and it’s far and away the best purchase request I’ve put in. The book is just fantastic–really great stuff.

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