Enabling the Windmill Bills

I had the good fortune to meet William Kamkwamba last Friday night as he and his co-author Bryan Mealer stopped in San Francisco at a private residence as part of their book tour for “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind”. As the two took a few minutes to share a bit about William’s life, Bryan referred to William as “Windmill Bill.”  Fair enough, except that we soon learned there’s a lot more to William than windmills.  For example, he also built crude but effective power switches and even a circuit breaker to protect his home from risk due to the bare metal wiring he had used.

I’ve only just begun reading the book, and yet I’ve already been struck by several ways in which William’s story highlights the power of Appropedia’s vision.  William used available materials, mostly from a local junkyard, combined with insight from a high school physics text and a book on windmills, to construct his first windmill a few years ago.  William could not then read English, but painstakingly translated some sections of these books with some help from a local library. With his windmills, William has generated power to light his household, and pumped well water to supply his village of Wimbe, Malawi.  In the first chapter, William talks about how learning about science displaced a pattern of magical thinking.

The power of ideas and knowledge is immense.  William’s initiative and perseverance have fittingly won him a rare opportunity at the African Leadership Academy, where 200 other young Africans have the opportunity to get a phenomenal education.  Ideas and knowledge.  William certainly had limited educational resources when he first built his windmill.  100’s of  millions of others in developing nations, both school-aged and older, have even less. Many are working to expand access to libraries, but the task is huge and hard to scale. However, just as the developing world has been able to bypass the huge investment in landline phone technology, they may have alternatives to physical libraries.

In the coming 4 years, half a billion new Internet users will come online, a great many in developing countries. In the past year, shipments of data-enabled phones outnumbered simple SMS phones in Africa.  In ten years, even those in the developing world will begin to gain some access to the internet. That puts a library within reach of every inquisitive mind. Imagine what will happen when all the world’s Windmill Bills can read about useful ideas in their own language.

That is what the Appropedia community is working toward.