At the age of 14, Kamkwamba was forced to drop out of high school due to a crippling famine that hit Malawi in the early 2000s and caused his family of nine to often go without food.
While devastated by the setback, his passion for learning and education never subsided, so instead of sitting idly at home, he sought solace at his local library, where he submerged himself in science books.
He came across Using Energy, where he first learnt about windmills and their capability to pump water and generate electricity – two resources that were a scarce commodity in his hometown, Masitala Village in Wimbe, Malawi, at the time.
He immediately identified the windmill as a tool he could use to fight the hunger his family was experiencing at the time.
Studying the pictures in the book, Kamkwamba taught himself how to build a windmill, which he constructed with materials that he found while rummaging through a scrapyard.
With a broken bicycle, a tractor fan blade, an old shock absorber, blue gum trees and PVC pipes, he built his first 5m makeshift contraption, which generated enough electricity to power one light bulb in his family’s house.
“Many people, including my mum, thought I was crazy, but I tried anyway,” he said in a TED talk.
He tweaked his prototype, including connecting the windmill to a car battery to enable storage of power. He was able to generate enough electricity to power four light bulbs and then eventually, enough to power a circuit-breaker, which he made from nails, wire and magnets.
Before long, Kamkwamba was able to silence his critics, as the community witnessed the power of a structure that they had once ridiculed.
He did this, he said, by backing himself – he believes that’s the key to success.
“Trust and believe in yourself. Whatever happens, don’t give up,” he said.
Some 14 years later, Kamkwamba has built two 12m windmills, which supply his village with free electricity, and a third one which pumps grey water for irrigation on his family’s farm, which has enabled them to double their production.