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William Kamkwamba: Harnessing the Wind

“A rare and inspiring story of hope in rural Africa, a true story of youth challenging and winning against all of the adversity that life throws at it. William represents a new generation of Africans, using ingenuity and invention to overcome life’s challenges. Where so many tilt at windmills, William builds them!”

Three years ago I came across a fascinating story of a young man in Malawi who had built a windmill from scratch, and I wrote about it on AfriGadget. Since then, I’ve gotten to know William Kamkwamba as TED Africa fellows and most recently we spent a good deal of time together in Ghana at Maker Faire Africa.


William Kamkwamba by Nana Kofi Acquah at Maker Faire Africa 2009

There is now a book, a documentary and a foundation all set up around the inspired story of windmills from Malawi.

Fortunately, I was given a pre-release version of the ” The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” to review, and as it comes out in just 4 days it’s about time that I did that. It should also be noted that Bryan Mealer, who wrote the book with William, is an incredibly talented writer that knows his way around Africa and has a knack for getting the nuances of African life across in a way few others do.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

I found the most fascinating part of this book to be William’s description of living through a famine. Imagine only one meal a day, and only a few bites at that. William’s family felt like they were the lucky ones because they at least had something to eat. I’ve seen pictures of people starving, but to have it described so frankly made it so much more real.

Because of this famine, William wasn’t able to go to school. His desire to still learn was what led to his reading books from the local library. It was there that he discovered the books “Using Energy,” “Explaining physics” and “integrated science.” Ironically, he discovered “using energy” (the book that inspired his famous windmill) while looking for the dictionary to look up “grapes.” On the front of “using energy” was a row of windmills, and William was reminded of the pinwheels that he and his friends made as a child out of cut up water bottles. He spent days looking through old parts at a junk yard, trying to find the right parts to build his own windmill.

As a young boy, William and his friends would often take radios apart and put them back together, cannabilizing some of them to fix others that were broken. A prototypical AfriGadget inventor, William was an expert at creative thinking and improvising, using a bicycle dynamo to power his first windmill.

Final Thoughts

What I appreciate the most about William is, despite all the notoriety that has come with his inventions, he remains humble, easy to talk to, loyal to his family and home, and full of desire to learn. You see this come through in his interviews, even with all of the success he has had, he is still a well-grounded individual.

Maker Faire Africa - logo ideaA final bit of trivia: William’s windmill came very close to being the final logo for Maker Faire Africa this year, here’s the prototype of that. It’s great to see how he has influenced my work with AfriGadget over the intervening years. Many times he is on the stage at big western-focused events, however last month in Ghana he stood in front of his peers at Maker Faire Africa. The room of 300-400 fellow African inventors was enthralled… After all, how much more exciting is it to see home-grown ingenuity and innovation making it big than it is if it’s imported in from overseas?

Okay, go buy the book! 🙂

TEDx Nairobi in 2 Days

In two days, August 8th, there will be a TEDx event in Nairobi taking place at the British Council. These are self-organized and hosted events that enable individuals to team together and create a TED-like experience in their own city. The TEDx Nairobi team has a number of TED Fellows leading it, and an outstanding line-up of speakers and talks to screen.

TEDx Nairobi speakers

The best part about a TEDx event is the other people you meet there. It’s an eclectic mix of individuals, so you could find yourself rubbing shoulders with a scientist on one side and a dance instructor on the other, all while talking to the CEO of a major multinational tech company. It’s a time for open ideas and conversation, along with a healthy mixture of thought provoking talks.

As a TED Fellow and a Nairobi guy myself, I’m highly disappointed that I won’t be able to make it to the event. I have no doubt that the speakers will put on some of their best performances, as the pressure to do a good job is on. Personally, I’d like to hear what Paula Kahumbu of WildlifeDirect will bring to the table as I’m sure it will be both moving and insightful. I’m curious to hear if Aly-Khan Satchu of Rich.co.ke will talk about his work, or bring something different to the table. Lastly, I know I will miss hearing the music of Muthoni.

The TED Commandments

What some know about, and all speakers need to read, is “The TED Commandments“. These are 10 rules that every TED speaker should know:

  1. Thou Shalt Not Simply Trot Out thy Usual Shtick
  2. Thou Shalt Dream a Great Dream, or Show Forth a Wondrous New Thing, Or Share Something Thou Hast Never Shared Before
  3. Thou Shalt Reveal thy Curiosity and Thy Passion
  4. Thou Shalt Tell a Story
  5. Thou Shalt Freely Comment on the Utterances of Other Speakers for the Sake of Blessed Connection and Exquisite Controversy
  6. Thou Shalt Not Flaunt thine Ego. Be Thou Vulnerable. Speak of thy Failure as well as thy Success.
  7. Thou Shalt Not Sell from the Stage: Neither thy Company, thy Goods, thy Writings, nor thy Desperate need for Funding; Lest Thou be Cast Aside into Outer Darkness.
  8. Thou Shalt Remember all the while: Laughter is Good.
  9. Thou Shalt Not Read thy Speech.
  10. Thou Shalt Not Steal the Time of Them that Follow Thee

The organizers tell me that seats are now VERY limited. In fact, as of writing this there are only 12 seats left. Try your luck, see if you can make it to the event by filling in the registration form.

The 2009 TED Fellows Video

I’ve been fortunate to be part of the TED Fellows program, starting in Tanzania and then this year in California. It is definitely worth applying for, and I know there are going to be quite a few openings for TED India later this year.

(Watch the high-res version here)

My (short) TED Talk on Ushahidi

I was fortunate enough to be at TED this year as a Fellow. While there, I did a short TED University talk on the roots of Ushahidi, where it’s going and a new initiative called Swift River. Needless to say, it was only 4 minutes, so I couldn’t get all the information that I wanted to in there. If you would like to know more about Swift, take a look at this video where Chris and Kaushal talk about it in more detail.

Currently we’re seeing this at work in India, where a group of people have come together to deploy Ushahidi and Swift River to gather information from normal people about the elections.

Nathan Wolfe on Virus’ and Bush Meat in Africa

Nathan Wolfe gave one of my favorite talks at TED 2009. It’s about finding, tracking and replacing activity that allows animal-bound viruses to jump to humans – generally through the practice of bush meat hunting. Viruses like ebola, HIV, bird flu and yellow fever.

Negroponte on the New (lowercase): olpc

Nicholas Negroponte comes up on stage at TED and tells us that, due to the OLPC, there’s a whole new product line: Netbooks. However, they copied all the wrong things. Next thing you know there are a couple being thrown around the stage, and he’s asking us how well a netbook would stand up to that, or being submerged in water, or being sent to Africa…

My question is about how well an OLPC works when you just open it up…? 🙂

“Commercial markets will do anything they can to stop you, even when you’re non-profit, even if you’re a humanitarian organization.”

Now we want to build something that everybody copies. Go from the OLPC to the olpc (lowercase). That’s what’s going to happen over the next 3 years. Open source hardware: where you publish all the specs and all the designs so that anyone can copy it.

In a side conversation with Ethan Zuckerman here, this is what they should have done 3 years ago, and it would have saved them a lot of heartache.

Cameron Sinclair adds via Twitter, “OLPC to be open sourced. email nn@MIT.edu with ideas about olpc. I suggest adding SketchUp and making it o.l.p.innovator”

Nate Silver: Race, Prediction and the US Election

Math whiz and baseball fan Nate Silver was mainly known for predicting outcomes in fantasy ballgames — until his technique hit a home run calling the outcome of the 2008 election primaries. He’s now a mainstream political pundit with two book deals.

Nate Silver on Prediction and Race at TED 2009

Nate starts off by talking about how big of a win Obama had in 2008’s US elections. He asks, “what’s the matter with Arkansas?” Wondering why it is that certain US states never vote for democrats.

We have negative connotations about Arkansas, typically it’s something like, “rednecks with guns“. We think it’s a problem of race, are we stigmatizing? Well, yes, and he sets out to prove that statistically it is.

One of the classic polling questions for the last couple presidential elections in the US has been:

“In deciding your vote for president today, was the race of the candidates a factor?”

The answers to this poll question have been indicative for which areas of the US tend to vote certain ways.

Is racism predictable? What is the deciding factor? Income, religion, education, etc…
Education is, so is the degree of rural vs urban setting you live in. So, yes, racism is predictable.

The General Social Survey, asks “Does anyone of the opposite race live in your neighborhood?” And, the answers to this are stratified upon density: In the city, yes. In the suburb, mainly yes. In rural areas, not nearly as much.

It turns out that people who live in monoracial areas are twice as less likely to approve multiracial marriages.

The goal is to facilitate interaction with people of other races. Nate is a big fan of cities, because they give a great opportunity for connecting with other cultures of other races. You end up having more tolerant communities. He also says that urban design is hugely important: grids vs the windy streets in many parts of suburbia, where grids are better. At the end of the day, he says cul de sacs lead to conservatives, which is a bad thing to him as well.

Highlights from Day 3 of TED 2009

[Read Ethan’s blog for liveblogging of TED 2009, and check out the “TED2009” tag on Flickr for images.]

I’ve spent most of the day inside the main theatre at TED. It’s been great getting up close to the speakers and performers, watching them go through their paces, putting on amazing performances. Here are a few of my personal favorites:

Jennifer Mather asks whether octopuses have intelligence. If they have personalities, play and can problem solve, then they have the characteristics that pass a rudimentary intelligence test.

Nalini Nadkarni tells us how she’s trying to get a new generation to think about trees, especially the upper level canopy, and how she thinks “Treetop Barbie” can help.

Bonnie Bassler gave us a story of light emitting bacteria that live within a certain type of shallow-water squid off the coast of Hawaii. How this squid uses a shutter to let out certain amounts of light beneath its body so that it mimics the sky above. It is the “stealth bomber of the ocean”.

Nathan Wolfe at TED 2009

Nathan Wolfe blew my mind with his talk on viruses, especially when he started describing his research and travel into central Africa (Cameroon), to study bush meat hunting of primates. It really challenged me to think about local communities in Africa and their needs, and I’m thinking hard on what would it really take to replace this type of activity. Read Ethan’s blog for a full rendition of his talk, but please, join me in thinking about this.

Evan Williams of Twitter was on stage for a few minutes, telling about how he didn’t realize how useful Twitter would be, especially in real-time events. He stated, “It seems that when you give people easy tools to communicate, that good things happen.”

Even Chris uses Twitter

Dickson Despommier, shared some incredible slides describing the need for vertical farming. The advantages include:

  • No agricultural runoff
  • Year-round crop production
  • No crop loss due to severe weather
  • Uses 70% less water than outdoors
  • Restoration of damaged ecosystems

Willie Smits has lived in Borneo for 30 years, and he set out to save orangutans. He tells everyone of how he has 1000 baby orangutans saved, but shushes everyone’s applause, claiming that this is a failure by all of us because they are not growing up in the wild. Over the last years he has been reclaiming burnt out/used land in Borneo, working with the local communities to make it happen. My favorite quote of his, “Ensure that the local people benefit most.

TED Prize Winner: Sylvia Earle

Al Gore just introduced deep ocean explorer Sylvia Earle, a fearless leader who engages the public on the crisis our oceans are facing. She started in 1953, when she first started scuba, “when I first learned about fish not swimming in lemon sauce and butter.

The Wish:

I wish you would use all means at your disposal – films! expeditions! the web! more! – to ignite the public support for a global network of marine protected areas, hope spots large enough to save and restore the ocean, the blue heart of the planet.

Image by Chadk21

Image by Chadk21

This is an amazing lady, one who has led aquanauts and been on the forefront of oceanography. She has designed and built systems to access the deep seas.

A couple years ago she met with the John Hanke, head of Google Earth, and asked them to do something about mapping the ocean. As of this week, Google Earth is now whole, they have mapped the oceans.

(Sidenote: There has been a strong theme on oceans at TED 2009, and for good reason. It’s stunning, and haunting, to see the amount of damage that trash and human waste is causing. It’s like peeing into a water tower that feeds your home.)

Shai Agassi: eMile’s and Electric Cars

I’m standing in for Ethan Zuckerman, blogging from TED today. This post is part of a series from the TED 2009 conference held in Long Beach, California from February 4-8th. You can read other posts in the series here, and the TED site will release video from the talk in the coming weeks or months. Because I’m putting these posts together very quickly, I will get things wrong, will misspell names and bungle details. Please feel free to use the comments thread on this post to offer corrections. You may also want to follow the conference via Twitter or through other blogs tagged as on Technorati.

Shai Agassi is a green auto pioneer, and he wants to put you behind the wheel of an electric car — but he doesn’t want you to sacrifice convenience (or cash) to do it. Check out his amazing project at Better Place, and make sure to read his blog.

How would you run a whole country without oil?

Shai focuses in on the electric car. You need a car that’s more convenient and more affordable than today’s cars. This isn’t a $40k sedan, nor is it something you drive for one hour and charge for 8 hours. So, how do you do this?

eMiles and electric cars

You separate the car and battery ownership. You create a network before you create the devices, a network for charging your vehicle. The second step is increasing the range extension (which currently is about 120 miles). You have a batter swap system, which actually happens less than what people normally stop for fuel in a normal car.

From molecules to electrons:
Gas tank >> Battery bay
Crude oil >> Battery pack

eMile, the new commodity. In 2010 this is about 8 cents/mile. But, in his model they follow Moore’s law, where by the year 2020 he expects it to be about 2 cents/mile.

“Hybrids are like mermaids. When you want a fish you get a woman, when you need a woman you get a fish.”

Where has this been working? Israel, Denmark, Australia, Hawaii and San Francisco.

Shai foresees 10 million electric vehicles by 2015. A future where all the cars will be driven by windmill power (in Denmark) and by solar power in other areas.

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