Yesterday, undergrad and grad students along with some faculty met in the Pfizer Auditorium to listen to a talk by William Kamkwamba, the co-author of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. He was invited to quick of the i2e dialogue series organized by Students Affairs for this academic year. As you’ll read below, this was an inspiring talk.
How many times have we heard people talking wistfully about their innovation – saying that if only they had more support, money or resources, they would be able to accomplish it? They remain in regret, dreaming about the “what if”, but not taking any action towards it. We are also constantly hearing speeches about the importance of a team, of a nurturing environment, or of networking to have a successful venture. However, yesterday in William Kamkwamba’s talk at the NYU School of Engineering, i2e Dialogues, none of these ingredients were present. What we heard was a completely different story, one in which resource-constraint and a harsh environment pushed him to develop a solution for his family and his town. William’s story was about imagination, learning, hard-work, and resilience.
William comes from Malawi, from a large and poor family of seven children who relied on farming to survive. When he was going to start high school, there was a terrible famine affecting more than 70% of Malawi. His family couldn’t afford to have him in school, so he had to drop out. However he didn’t want to just be a farmer: not that he did not like farming, but he wanted to have the choice to be a farmer… or not. Moreover, he wanted to change things and believed that science could make his family and village step out of the famine.
William went to the library that had just opened in a village not far from his and he found a text book called “Using Energy” with a windmill on the cover. He decided that he would build one to generate electricity and pump water. He taught himself how to do it, and he did it! I was surprised to learn that he didn’t even knew English so well, but he used the graphics in the book to teach himself about this renewable energy technology. People in his community thought he was crazy when they saw him picking waste, such as a broken bicycle, trees and a tractor fan blade from a junkyard. Most of us would have probably also thought that he was crazy. In fact, most of us would have probably stopped working on our ideas until we have the “proper” material to construct a product. However, nothing stopped William. He constructed a functional windmill that generated power for his family. After that he also constructed a solar-powered water pump that supplies drinking water for his village.
Do you want to know his source of motivation when he feels that he can’t continue? His grandmother. He told us that in his village people usually have gender-roles type of jobs, but his grandmother didn’t believe in this. She decided she wanted to construct her house, and she started making bricks herself. People told her to stop, and that her husband should be the one doing this. She didn’t listen, and continued working. After a while, the kids from the village started helping her built the bricks. She told William that if she had asked for help, probably nobody would have given it. However, when they saw her doing it some people came and help her. So, William learnt from her that life has many challenges, and many times people questions our actions. However, that challenges exist not to stop us, but to make us work harder to achieve our end goal. In fact, if you work hard enough, sometimes other people eventually might join you and help you.
Currently, William holds a B.S. in Environmental Science from Dartmouth. He is helping the school in his village to make other kids have the opportunity of education. He is also building an innovation center in Malawi that will help bridge the education and poverty gap. William is definitely the epitome of a social innovator that hopefully has taught us through his story that where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Bertha Jimenez is a Ph.D student in the department of Technology Management and Innovation at NYU School of Engineering who is doing research on entrepreneurship and innovation. She also worked on a social venture, SunCulture, which aims to transform agriculture with solar-powered drip irrigation systems.