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William Kamkwamba at TEDGlobal 2009: Running notes from Session 7

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William Kamkwamba at TEDGlobal 2009, Session 7: July 23, 2009, in Oxford, UK. Credit: TED / James Duncan Davidson

William Kamkwamba took the stage this morning to tell the story of his young and remarkable life. He explains that two years ago he stood on the TED stage in Arusha, Tanzania and spoke about a windmill that he built himself. That experience, he says, changed his life. Before that, he had never left Malawi and he had never seen the Internet. Kamkwamba tells the audience that in his first appearance at TED his English was not good enough to share his story himself. He recalls saying only a few words

He begins to tell us about his life. “I was just a simple farmer in a country of poor farmers,” he says. There were seven siblings in his family, and he was the only boy. In 2001, there was an awful famine in Malawi. His family ate one meal per day, at night. “We dropped down to nothing,” he explains. In Malawi they must fees to attend secondary school. Kamkwamba’s family could not afford it, so he was forced to drop out. “It was a future I couldn’t accept,” he says. Determined to do anything to receive education, he went to the library and borrowed books, especially those on physics. He couldn’t read much of the English, so he studied the diagrams.

Eventually, he found book called “Using Energy” that described windmill, and decided that this could be used to help his family. He went to the scrap yard to find material. Kamkwamba laughs that many people, including his mother, said he was crazy. He used a bicycle frame, PVC pipes and all manner of other odds and ends and built his windmill. It powered one light at first, and then he installed three more as well as a circuit breaker and switches.

Soon, he says, queues of people started lining up at his house to charge their mobile phones. “I could not get rid of them,” he smiles. The lines led to bloggers, to reporters and finally to TED. “I had never seen an airplane before and never slept in a hotel.

Kamwaba has a poignant final message. He ends his talk by saying, “To all the people out there like me — to the Africans, and the poor, and the struggling, maybe one day you’ll watch this on the Internet: Trust yourself and believe. Whatever happens, don’t give up.”