Sam Burcher dot com

Sam Burcher, news views and bits inbetween......
Total Site Hits

What inspires a youngster to the action of change despite leaving school at 14?

Electricity from recycled materials

william kWilliam Kamkwamba was only 14 years old when he built a windmill to provide his family home in a remote village in Malawi with enough electricity to read by and to listen to the radio [1].  William first started thinking about energy when he had to drop out of school early because his parents could no longer afford the school fees.  He got his idea from a book from a school library book called “Using Energy” and modified a design for a windmill with materials that were to hand such as an old bicycle, PVC pipes, a pair of worn out shoes, copper wire, and a tractor fan.

William’s inspiration for his invention was the health of his sisters.  At night their home would be lit with paraffin candles that emit toxic fumes similar to those of burning diesel which was making his sisters ill from the smoke. At first his neighbours mocked him saying that he was going mad, but William persevered with the design because the book told him that it worked.  His neighbours in the village who had no electricity at all soon changed their minds about Williams’ windmill when they realised they could re-charge their mobile phones by bringing them to his house.

His first attempt at a windmill gave the family enough energy to light one room so William decided to adapt the design further by adding a fourth rotor blade to create more power.  He asked a local tinsmith to cut more efficient steel blades from a recycled oil drum and replaced all three original blades that had been fashioned from heated, flattened and shaped PVC pipes.  In addition, he replaced a bicycle chain that doubled as a pulley rotor with an old car fan belt that worked much better.

Adapting to local conditions

The new design speeded up the turbine from generating 12 watts of electricity to 20 watts of electricity.  This was enough to provide energy for lighting his whole house, plus two radios, two mobile phone chargers and a car battery for backup power. The windmill was atop a 12 metre tall tower made out of blue gum tree poles that could catch the wind above the trees. William has also experimented with a radio transmitter, which can serve his local community. He plans to broadcast important HIV prevention messages as well as popular music [2].

William encountered several problems along the way.  He didn’t always have the parts he needed to construct his windmill.  For example the bicycle frame, fan belt and bearings had to be purchased from money that he scraped together over time. Whatever else he needed was given to him by other farmers, or he found discarded on tobacco plantations in his locality. Other electrical components such as light switches were improvised from the rubber of some old shoes and some springs.

William has been made a Fellow at TEDGlobal, a not for profit conference that brings together exceptional people from around the world who specialise in Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED). In his conference speech in Tanzania in 2007 which was warm and funny William said, “When I dropped out of school, I went to the library and read and gathered information about how to make a windmill.  And I tried, and I made it.” [3].

Supporters in his own country are impressed with the actions of a boy who did not blame his parents, the power companies, the government, or policy makers for his lack of education. William simply got on with the task in hand. This year the young inventor who is now 21 years old has given a short lecture at the TED conference in Oxford about his experiences so far.

Back to school

William’s story has attracted interest around the world and through TED he has been given financial help to improve his project by incorporating solar energy.  With this expanded system William is hoping to pump water, irrigate crops for his native Mastala village in Kusungu district and to re-design new classrooms for his local school [4].   Through the interest garnered by a Malawi's Daily Times article entitled, "School Drop-Out With a Streak of Genius" and the University of Cape Town as well as TED, William has been sponsored to return to secondary school after five years out and now attends the African Leadership Academy.

This success story may also have acted a catalyst for a more recent project taking place at Portsmouth University [5]. Max Robson, a 22 year old graduate has created a wind turbine from recycled materials found at the roadside and in front gardens. The “Envirocycle Scrap Wind Turbine” prototype converts kinetic energy from the wind into 11.3 watts electricity which can then be stored in a battery. When fully charged the battery provides energy for 63 hours of lighting and 30 hours of radio.

This research project was privately funded so that small scale turbines can be used around the world. Meanwhile, Portsmouth University is funding Max through a postgraduate Masters Degree to develop the project using the University’s resources.  So far two primary schools have invested in an educational pack that Max has produced so that schools can build their own turbines and learn about renewable energy.  One school is running a laptop off their turbine and the ultimate aim of the research is to link with the schools in the developing world that are also producing energy from scrap turbines.

Low tech, low cost solutions

Max Robson’s windmill cost him £20 to produce and is 1.8 metres wide, so is low cost and is low impact on the surrounding environment. It can be constructed in a matter of days using hand tools.  According to Max, the nearest alternative wind turbine on the market costs £2,000.  Both Max and William have provided valuable research as well as an alternative and affordable solution to small-scale electricity needs for renewable futures around the world.


    1. Living Lightly, Issue 45 September 22, 2008
    2. Jewell, W. Kember, D. Community Hero:  William Kamkwamba
    3. Talks William Kamkwamba on building a windmill. August 2007
    4. Kamkwamba W. Mealer, B. The Boy who Harnessed the Wind, due 29th September 2009,
    5. The ‘Scrap’ Turbine that’s powering a dream. Positive News, Summer 2009