Having spent much of my career in the technology sector, I have a bias about how innovations come. You take a company, large or small, with a critical mass of intelligent, highly educated people and provide them with the right R&D infrastructure. Add a compensation plan that rewards them when their genius produces commercializable innovations and you’re there! Hand out bonuses and raises as the patents roll in and revenues go up. In fact, it does work this way in some places, so I’ve been told. It must, because a lot of companies seem to use this model to nurture innovation.
The story of William Kamkwamba tells a different story about the birth of innovation. In his book “The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind”, written with Bryan Mealer, we learn that William is from Malawi, a nation in southern Africa where much of the population practices sustenance farming as their way of life. In western society, we would say that William and his family live in poverty, or if we’re more polite, hand-to-mouth. His home did not have electricity, but his village and family were not void of technology: many people carried mobile phones and the radio was their connection to the world outside the village. Malawians think their radios are like members of their family.
William was curious about the radio and what went on inside it. His curiosity led him to take apart old radios to figure out how they worked. He became adept at fixing radios and soon was the go-to-guy in the village for fixing broken radios. William himself loved listening to music on the radio, but batteries to power it cost money. Then William discovered what he called the bicycle dynamo – a small generator that attaches to the fork of a bike. As the rider pedals, the bike wheel turns the wheel on the dynamo and generates enough electricity to power a headlight.
William managed to obtain a dynamo and hook it up to a radio. As long as he or a friend pedaled the bike, it powered the radio. But after a few minutes of pedaling his upside-down bike by hand, his arm got tired and the radio stopped. William wondered what could do the pedaling for him?
In December 2000, Malawi entered a drought that caused its citizens terrible suffering. The rains that normally watered the maize crop never came, and the food supply for the year shriveled up in the ground. William and his family found themselves fighting for their lives. A casualty of the famine and the economic hardship it produced was William’s education. Unable to pay tuition to the school in which he had been accepted, William had to drop out. His thirst for education led him to the local library, which was stocked with books donated by the American government.
There were books on English, history and science, and William began a rigorous course in independent study. His English was poor, but he persisted, getting translation help from the librarian but largely learning by studying pictures and diagrams. One book featured a hydroelectric plant, describing how the water turned the turbines to generate electricity. More ideas germinated in William’s mind. Then he encountered the book that changed his life: “Using Energy”. The cover featured a row of windmills, and by reading further, he understood their application for generating electricity. The potential energy of William’s idea was about to go kinetic.
So at the age of 14, William scrounged old machinery parts from a nearby scrapyard and cobbled together a windmill.
His family and friends in the village thought he was crazy, but he was undeterred. His unlikely contraption worked and was soon powering lights in his home. Villagers lined up to charge their mobile phones at the windmill. William would eventually build a second windmill to turn a water pump that would help mitigate the always-present threat of drought. This windmill changed his life, the life of his family and inspired the village, his nation and people around the world.
In terms of education, William was an unlikely source of innovation. He didn’t even possess the equivalent of a high school diploma. His success reinforces the view that a diploma is not an indicator of intellect, but of a knowledge set. You can’t escape the conclusion from reading William’s story that he was very bright. Formal education is a worthy pursuit, but not always a prerequisite for success. Real genius, as in this case, finds a way to learn what is necessary to achieve a dream. That may or may not occur within the walls of an academic institution.
This story reveals how important environment is to innovation. Malawi is no Silicon Valley. William didn’t secure venture capital and rent space in a technology park before doing his work. A poor village devoid of resources and infrastructure seems an unlikely place to innovate. Yet it was this harsh environment where need was most deeply felt that incubated his idea.
Finally, William possessed the right combination of resolve and resilience. The villagers didn’t understand what he was doing and thought him crazy. Innovators are non-conformists, and nonconformity is an affront to the mainstream. Successful innovation often requires the emotional strength to weather the criticism that will surely come.