Engineers Without Borders – Celebrating African Enterprise

Note: This article is hosted here for archival purposes only. It does not necessarily represent the values of the Iron Warrior or Waterloo Engineering Society in the present day.

William Kamkwamba is a secondary school student who at the age of fourteen, built a windmill in his rural home village in Malawi to provide electricity. The story of how he came to build the windmill, along with his life as a child growing up in Malawi, is documented in the book The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, co-written by William and journalist Bryan Mealer.

Due to famine in Malawi in 2002 William’s impoverished family was unable to afford his school fees and as a result, he was forced to drop out. To compensate, he began spending time at the library in his village and it was there that he stumbled upon physics and energy textbooks which changed his life forever.

The windmill was built using parts from a broken bicycle, PVC pipes cut and molded into flat sheets after being heated over a fire, and other impromptu materials William had collected. It became a regional attraction, with visitors from neighbouring villages routinely stopping by to see the magetsi a mphepo – electric wind.

The story was picked up by some Malawian newspapers. From there it found its way onto the blogosphere, and came to the attention of an organizer of the Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED) 2007 conference in Arusha, Tanzania. The organizer tracked William down and invited him to attend the conference.

Upon arrival he was asked by another enthralled organizer if he would like to speak at the conference. Having agreed, the nervous 19 year old William spoke in front of an audience which included aid and development workers, businesspeople and innovators from all over the world. His presentation, which was given a standing ovation by the audience, is available for viewing on www.ted.com.

Thanks to the financial support of wealthy proponents from the 2007 TED conference, today William is enrolled at a school called African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, South Africa after having spent five years out of school. His most immediate goal is to enroll into a university in the US after completing his SATs. After finishing his education William plans to return to Malawi in a capacity to help better the lives of his compatriots.

“Celebrating African Enterprise” is the theme Engineers Without Borders will be working with this spring term. We intend to employ the word “enterprise” in a more wide-ranging sense than the narrow use it usually gets to refer to private business and social development ventures. While not ignoring that aspect of enterprise altogether, we also want to draw attention to individual courage, innovation and hard work; of which William Kamkwamba is the embodiment.

The reason EWB chose this theme is to focus, for a change, on the positive aspects of the usually jaded world of international development. By highlighting stories like William’s we hope to inspire students to envision and develop a sense of purpose that is beyond their own self-interests. We also hope to encourage discussion about the big-picture facets of international development relating to the lack of opportunity that restricts African enterprise.

In his book William recalled scenes that took place as the famine became progressively worse, take for example, the following:

“Soon people began selling the iron sheets off their homes for a cup of flour, and thatched roofs for even less.

‘What good is a roof when I’m dead?’ one man asked.

A man in the trading center was caught trying to sell his two young daughters. The buyer had informed the police. People were becoming desperate.”

Such scenes are reminiscent of the Irish Great Hunger, and the El-Nino induced famines of the late 19th century in India, China, and elsewhere. Granted, the death toll from the famine in Malawi was in the thousands as opposed to the millions that died in the other famines mentioned, but it is pertinent to wonder how in a world of such abundance and achievement people could die from want of food.

The next step is to ask questions about things such as the arrangement of global food markets, the role of international financial institutions, patents and intellectual property rights concerning genetically modified foods, as well as, of course in this case, specific details about the Malawian famine.

Aside from floods that washed away budding crops and a drought that followed, William placed part of the blame for the famine on the International Monetary Fund, which insisted that the government of Malawi sell a portion of the country’s emergency grain reserve to pay off some of its debt. Corrupt officials in the government were emboldened by the occasion and sold all of the reserve grain and kept much of the money made from the sales for themselves.

Another reason for the famine was the elimination of fertilizer and seed subsidies by the government to farmers. It has also been established that the international community did not do enough to help when the famine was occurring.

After asking questions and seeking out answers, the next step is to determine solutions and advocate their implementation. EWB offers to serve as a channel through which to create positive change in the world. We will be hosting various kinds of outreach and educational events throughout the term, as well as discussion groups, high school classroom presentations, and lobbying our political leaders to create policy changes.

Please visit our website, www.uwaterloo.ewb.ca, or email us at uwaterloo@ewb.ca if you are interested in joining EWB or attending any of our events.

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