Shell eco-marathon diary, day one: A lesson from African windmills

I first heard of William Kamkwamba in 2009, and it’s a story I’ve told repeatedly.

As a teenager in Malawi, Mr Kamkwamba was forced to quit school because his family could no longer afford the tuition. He began working and, in his free time, he would head to the local library.

He came across a book on windmills and began thinking about how he could build one with little to no money to help his family generate electricity and pump water. He roamed around his neighbourhood and picked through items that had been discarded – a broken bicycle, a tractor fan, and a shock absorber. This early idea, at the age of 14, resulted in a windmill and solar pumps that irrigated his family’s farm.

This led Mr Kamkwamba to the US Ivy League university Dartmouth, on a full-ride scholarship, as well as to the establishment of the Moving Windmills Foundation. The non-profit has built three classroom blocks that have two classes each for a local Malawian school.

The classrooms have solar panels that allow children the opportunity to study at night.

Mr Kamkwamba’s idea is an example of turning lemons into lemonade. He made the best of an unfortunate situation and it continues to fuel innovations in his home country.

To innovate means to change something that is already established. It does not mean you have to spend an enormous amount of money, but you do need the drive to make an idea and turn it into a reality. That is what Mr Kamkwamba did.

But he is not alone.

Children are creative forces. How do we build platforms to help them to implement their ideas? How do we encourage their exploration into the impossible? Luke Beckman, the manager for situation awareness at the American Red Cross, said it is often repeated that children are our future. We encourage their ideas, but often we fail to provide tools of implementation. “We have to provide more,” he said.

When I was given the opportunity to cover the Shell Eco-Marathon featuring three teams from the UAE, I wanted to jazz it up. I did not want to only discuss the fuel consumption techniques but also get involved with the teams to find out what they thought about innovation.

In the end, I hope this makes you ask yourself: “What is innovation, and how can I help?”

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