Teen dynamos reshape Africa

12 November 2012 - 02:48 By Toby Shapshak
Toby Shapshak. Stuff editor. File photo.
Toby Shapshak. Stuff editor. File photo.
Image: Times LIVE

Standing on top of the windmill tower he built, holding onto the recycled bicycle parts, William Kamkwamba is one of greatest inventors in Africa.

He shot to prominence in 2006 when he built a windmill in his home town of Masitala, in Malawi.

Unable to finish school in 2002 because his family couldn't afford the fees, Kamkwamba, then 15, discovered a book in his local library on electricity.

Using bicycle parts, scrap metals and bluegum poles he built perhaps the most famous windmill in Africa - one that could run a refrigerator and charge cellphones.

Kamkwamba has often been compared to MacGyver, the famed television character who used his ingenuity to get out of difficult situations.

Kamkwamba's problem-solving prowess was first reported in the local press, then appeared in newspapers such as The Wall Street Journal.

A book was written about his life: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope.

His talent was spotted by the excellent African Leadership Academy and he is now studying at Dartmouth College, in the US. When he finishes, he will return to Malawi and help build a $60-million windmill project.

It's one of those rare rags-to-prominence stories that we usually hear these days only about software developers who make a runaway success of a website (Facebook or Twitter) or an app (the Apple app store is full of these great tales).

But it is more than that. Kamkwamba epitomises the notion of finding African solutions to African problems. This concept is spoken about so often it seems almost trite. But if you look beyond the hype that accompanies the few globally syndicated news stories such as these there is a pervasive movement of young people finding ways to solve their everyday dilemmas.

Given the historical lack of infrastructure, and notoriously poor electricity supply, generating power has become a painful obstacle to growth. More people in Africa have a cellphone than have access to reliable electricity.

The developed worlds of Europe, North America and Asia haven't faced this developmental challenge for centuries.

This is why we are seeing it being solved in Africa.

Other African inventors you might have heard about are Duro-Aina Adebola, Akindele Abiola, Faleke Oluwatoyin and Bello Eniola.

Last week they made global headlines for creat ing a generator that can produce six hours of electricity fuelled on only one litre of urine.

It uses a simple hydrogen conversion system, employing a clever understanding of chemistry. The best part is that, apart from Eniola, who is 15, all the girls are 14.

The four burst onto the global news scene because they showed off their invention at the Maker Faire Africa, held this year in Lagos, Nigeria.

It's the same fine forum that shot Kamkwamba to prominence.

These are problems that can only be solved by the people who have experienced them. Given that the vast majority of the world's population lives in developing countries with equally vast problems to solve, these youngsters are showing the world that they can solve the problems the majority face.

Before Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg and their software inventions, there were Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla and James Watt whose contributions to understanding and utilising electricity shaped human history in a more profound way.

Is it so improbable to believe that Kamkwamba, Adebola, Abiola, Oluwatoyin and Eniola could one day join that pantheon of electricity pioneers when future generations look back at the evolution of our practical application of those scientific principles?

We could add Pretoria's own Elon Musk to that list, given what he has done with popularising electric cars through his aptly named Tesla Motors.