William Kamkwamba, the 14-year-old son of a subsistence farmer in the Kansugu district of Malawi, quit school in 2001. A drought meant his parents were unable to pay school fees.
But just because he had to quit school didn't mean he was going to quit learning. He started studying the books at the village library. An old junior high textbook about electricity inspired him to build a couple of tiny wind turbines from mostly salvaged parts and bicycle wheels that powered a few lights and pumped groundwater that irrigated a few acres of precious vegetables for his family and neighboring smallholder farms.
Some villagers thought he was crazy to collect junk and spare parts. But their attitudes changed when the windmill-generated power allowed William and others to read at night and to irrigate vegetable plots. His family no longer relied on smoky kerosene lamps or batteries for the radio.
Former critics waited outside the Kamkwamba home to charge cellphones.
That small development of self-sufficiency in a dirt-poor country, where less than 5% of people had electricity or running water, led to a Kamkwamba TED Talk in 2007, followed by a New York Times bestseller, "The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind," and a heralded Netflix dramatization of the book starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, an Oscar nominee for "12 Years a Slave."
Meanwhile, Kamkwamba, now 35, graduated from high school and the Ivy League's Dartmouth College in 2017, studying engineering and environmental studies.
Kamkwamba, naturally quiet and curious, has become a more confident but still humble leader.
"Leadership is being able to listen, to incorporate others' ideas, and to lead by example,'' he told a Dartmouth publication. "It's not about imposing authority. It's about what we can achieve when we work together."
Kamkwamba and 30 educators and other employees in Malawi, backed by stakeholders from Kansugu to St. Paul, are slowly starting to expand Kansugu's nascent Moving Windmills Innovation Center (movingwindmills.org).
It is rooted in education, sustainable agriculture and renewable power, including a fleet of electric bikes. The idea is to build a better economy in a country where 70% of the land grows tobacco for export markets.
"The community development model works around the world," said Olivia Scott-Kamkwamba, executive director of Windmills, who met William at Dartmouth. "We learned a lot in Minnesota."
The Kamkwambas recently spent a week in Minnesota, visiting farms near Lanesboro and attending meetings at 3M Co. They spoke at the annual luncheon of St. Paul-based "Books for Africa," the 34-year nonprofit and Windmills partner that is supplying textbooks and donated power tools.
The innovation center runs on about $500,000 a year. Mass Architects has completed plans for a $32 million, 30-acre campus to be built over the next decade, designed as a regional resource for sustainable development and flexible template for southern Africa and beyond.
Eric Bunge, the founder of Lanesboro's Commonweal Theater and who grew up on a Preston-area farm, is an adviser to the Kamkwambas. Bunge hired Scott-Kamkwamba years ago when he was developing Northern States Theater of Vermont.
"William always says challenge is universal but opportunity often is missing," Bunge said. "Young people will have more opportunity to learn and innovate and add value. The innovation center will give back to the community, and there will be ripple effects from there.
"Moving Windmills can influence the world from Malawi. They are poised to launch [an inaugural] capital campaign of $13 or $14 million for the innovation center. This is the real deal."
Scott-Kamkwamba said the center already schools young people and operates a machine shop.
The Innovation Center will be a hands-on, collaborative-learning campus designed to educate and inspire African innovators; forge community-business partnerships, and serve as a model for human-centered design that creates local solutions in southern Africa and beyond.
Jayshree Seth, a veteran corporate scientist and chief science advocate at 3M, met with the Kamkwambas one day this spring.
"People like them drive movements and positive change," Seth said. "The role they play is tremendous. We showed them some of our innovative products, but from an angle of humility.
"This is about groundbreaking innovation. Some of the solutions to a more sustainable future can come from simple, practical and elegant solutions in a resource-constrained environment in places such as Malawi. Some of the worst impacts of climate change are in Africa. We need a lot more innovators who can make things work for a community. As well as companies. It's inspiring."
Seth said 3M will provide educational materials for young people, technical advice as requested and possibly more to the fledgling relationship.
Patrick Plonski, executive director of St. Paul-based Books for Africa, which has supplied 57 million-plus texts and digital materials valued at $27 million to Malawi and other African countries, has a growing relationship with the innovation center.
"We also are sending power tools, batteries for solar arrays, and solar lamps that are quite powerful that also enable African kids to read at night," Plonski said. "We have other solar partners that have helped [from neighboring] Tanzania.
"We have several Books for Africa partners-donors who have sent solar technology to Africa. They have set up small businesses in Tanzania and Kenya. The money comes from the private sector or nonprofits, and sometimes an African government. And we can a make a case that this benefits people, earns income and makes sense."
This all started with an education-hungry boy, inspired by a book, who has become an inspiration to countrymen, scientists and stakeholders around the globe.