At age 14, in poverty and famine, a Malawian boy built a windmill to power his family’s home. Now at 22, William Kamkwamba, who speaks at TED, here, for the second time, shares in his own words the moving tale of invention that changed his life.
Why you should listen to him:
William Kamkwamba, from Malawi, is a born inventor. When he was 14, he built an electricity-producing windmill from spare parts and scrap, working from rough plans he found in a library book called Using Energy and modifying them to fit his needs. The windmill he built powers four lights and two radios in his family home.
After reading about Kamkwamba on Mike McKay’s blog Hactivate (which picked up the story from a local Malawi newspaper), TEDGlobal Conference Director Emeka Okafor spent several weeks tracking him down at his home in Masitala Village, Wimbe, and invited him to attend TEDGlobal on a fellowship. Onstage, Kamkwamba talked about his invention and shared his dreams: to build a larger windmill to help with irrigation for his entire village, and to go back to school.
Following Kamkwamba’s moving talk, there was an outpouring of support for him and his promising work. Members of the TED community got together to help him improve his power system (by incorporating solar energy), and further his education through school and mentorships. Subsequent projects have included clean water, malaria prevention, solar power and lighting for the six homes in his family compound; a deep-water well with a solar-powered pump for clean water; and a drip irrigation system. Kamkwamba himself returned to school, and is now attending the African Leadership Academy, a new pan-African prep school outside Johannesburg, South Africa.
Kamkwamba’s story is documented in his autobiography, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope. A short documentary about Kamkwamba, called Moving Windmills, won several awards last year; Kamkwamba and friends are now working on a full-length film. You can read the ongoing details on his blog (which he keeps with help from his mentor), and support his work and other young inventors at MovingWindmills.org.
Nature’s mysteries meet tack-sharp wit in this hilarious, 10-minute mix of quips and fun lessons, as comedian, writer and TV man John Lloyd plucks at the substance of several things not seen.
Why you should listen to him:
John Lloyd seems to have known every brilliant and funny person in Britain, and his collaborations are legendary. He’s been a fixture on the BBC for four decades, producing such classic comedies as Blackadder, Spitting Image, the BBC’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and lately QI, hosted by Stephen Fry, and now in its sixth season.He’s also written a dozen funny books — including The Meaning of Liff, a collaboration with his friend Douglas Adams, which has been in print for 26 years.
“If John Cleese is the Pope of comedy, John is the Cardinal. He is the kingmaker because he is this unbelievable source of comic wisdom.”
Griff Rhys Jones, The Independent
Can happiness be bought? To find out, author Benjamin Wallace sampled the world’s most expensive products, including a bottle of 1947 Chateau Cheval Blanc, 8 ounces of Kobe beef and the fabled (notorious) Kopi Luwak coffee. His critique may surprise you.
Why you should listen to him:
A Washington D.C. native and a current Brooklynite, Benjamin Wallace is fast establishing himself a master of the brainy nonfiction thriller, rooting up feuds and controversies in pop and less-than-pop culture while buddying up with their embattled and larger-than-life personalities (whom he sometimes meets on their way down). He profiled conserative mouthpiece Glenn Beck for GQ in 2007 shortly after the pundit landed a controversial slot on CNN, and in 2002 looked at chef Georges Perrier of Philidelphia’s then-five-star restaurant, Le Bec-Fin.
Wallace’s orderly, deadpan writing style hints at one of his secrets: his love (and talent) for playing the straight man to the once-mighty in downfall, right as they go aflame in tragicomic hubris. (The Billionaire’s Vinegar is simply a pleasure, not least to schadenfreude junkies.) It’s easy to imagine him, the bespectacled wallflower, watching as brouhaha over a wine bottle once valued at $165,000 — the highest price fetched for a bottle, ever — culimates in a court trial that reveals at least two of its main characters, a wine collector and a wine expert, to be frauds. Or at least emperors with no clothes.
“Ben Wallace has told a splendid story just wonderfully, his touch light and deft, his instinct pitch-perfect.” Simon Winchester, author, The Professor and the Madman
Kwabena Boahen is the principal investigator at the Brains in Silicon lab at Stanford. He writes of himself:
Being a scientist at heart, I want to understand how cognition arises from neuronal properties. Being an engineer by training, I am using silicon integrated circuits to emulate the way neurons compute, linking the seemingly disparate fields of electronics and computer science with neurobiology and medicine.
My group’s contributions to the field of neuromorphic engineering include a silicon retina that could be used to give the blind sight and a self-organizing chip that emulates the way the developing brain wires itself up. Our work is widely recognized, with over sixty publications, including a cover story in the May 2005 issue of Scientific American.My current research interest is building a simulation platform that will enable the cortex’s inner workings to be modeled in detail. While progress has been made linking neuronal properties to brain rhythms, the task of scaling up these models to link neuronal properties to cognition still remains. Making the supercomputer-performance required affordable is the goal of our Neurogrid project. It is at the vanguard of a profound shift in computing, away from the sequential, step-by-step Von Neumann machine towards a parallel, interconnected architecture more like the brain.
Ory Okolloh is a blogger and open-government activist. She runs Mzalendo, a pioneering civic website that tracks the performance of Kenya’s Parliament and its Parliamentarians. With a vote tracker, articles and opinion pieces, the site connects Kenyans to their leaders and opens the lid on this powerful and once-secretive body. (This is a Parliament that finally agreed to have its procedings televised in August 2008.)
Okolloh’s own blog is called Kenyan Pundit, and it tracks her work with Mzalendo and her other efforts as part of the rebuilding of Kenya, following the post-election violence in late 2007 (she collected a powerful series of diaries of the violence, dozens of essays from Kenyans and others — well worth a read).Okolloh is part of a wave of young Africans who are using the power of blogging, SMS and web-enabled openness to push their countries forward and help Africans to truly connect. Tools like Ushahidi help to link a people whose tribal differences, as Okolloh points out again and again, are often cynically exploited by a small group of leaders. Only by connecting Africans can this cycle be broken.
“We feel that Kenyans not only have “a right to know” but also need to take a more active role in determining their country’s role — this is our effort to do more than just complain about how things are not working in Kenya.”
Telling stories of our shared humanity Chris Abani on TED.com
Chris Abani tells stories of people: People standing up to soldiers. People being compassionate. People being human and reclaiming their humanity. It’s “ubuntu,” he says: the only way for me to be human is for you to reflect my humanity back at me.
Why you should listen to him:
Chris Abani’s first novel, published when he was 16, was Masters of the Board, a political thriller about a foiled Nigerian coup. The story was convincing enough that the Nigerian government threw him in jail for inciting a coincidentally timed real-life coup. Imprisoned and tortured twice more, he channeled the experience into searing poetry.Abani’s best-selling 2004 novel GraceLand is a searing and funny tale of a young Nigerian boy, an Elvis impersonator who moves through the wide, wild world of Lagos, slipping between pop and traditional cultures, art and crime. It’s a perennial book-club pick, a story that brings the postcolonial African experience to vivid life.
Now based in Los Angeles, Abani published The Virgin of Flames in 2007. He is also a publisher, running the poetry imprint Black Goat Press.
Cheetahs vs. Hippos for Africa’s future
About this Talk
This grab-you-by-the-throat speech by Ghanaian economist George Ayittey unleashes an almost breathtaking torrent of controlled anger toward corrupt leaders and the complacency that allows them to thrive. These “Hippos” (lazy, slow, ornery) have ruined postcolonial Africa, he says. Why, then, does he remain optimistic? Because of the young, agile “Cheetah Generation,” a “new breed of Africans” taking their futures into their own hands.
About George Ayittey
Economist George Ayittey sees Africa’s future as a fight between Hippos — complacent, greedy bureaucrats wallowing in the muck — and Cheetahs, the fast-moving, entrepreneurial leaders and citizens who will rebuild Africa.
Why you should listen to him:
Ghanaian economist George Ayittey was a voice in the wilderness for many years, crying out against the corruption and complacency that — more than any other factor, he believes — are the bedrock problems of many troubled Africa states. “We call our governments vampire states, which suck the economic vitality out of the people,” he says.
His influential book Africa Unchained has helped unleash a new wave of activism and optimism — especially in the African blogosphere, where his notion of cheetahs-versus-hippos has become a standard shorthand. The “Cheetah Generation,” he says, is a “new breed of Africans,” taking their futures into their own hands, instead of waiting for politicians to empower them. (He compares them to the previous “Hippo Generation,” who are lazily stuck complaining about colonialism, yet doing nothing to change the status quo.)
Ayittey is a Distinguished Economist in Residence at American University in Washington, DC.
Pamelia Kurstin excavates a dusty artifact from the prehistoric strata of electronic music — and demonstrates how to squeeze soul from an instrument you can’t even touch.
The theremin, the first electronic instrument ever invented, was on the brink of historic oblivion when it was rescued from obscurity by director Steven Martin’s classic 1994 documentary Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey . And while a few brave souls have sought to master this temperamental instrument since then, none have done so with more sly effervescence than Pamelia Kurstin.
From the rock-steady composure she assumes behind the instrument (necessary lest her breathing drive the sensors out of tune), one might presume a shrinking conservatory personality, but a quick glance at the MySpace page or website of the self-described “bird-punching rollerskating thereminist” will quickly dash any of these quaint notions. Far from being a quirky curiosity, however, Kurstin is a sensitive, emotional stylist capable of coaxing sublime melodic content out of an instrument usually doomed to B-movie sci-fi soundtracks. (And her walking bass imitation is pretty cool too.)
Born in Los Angeles, Kurstin currently resides in Vienna, and performs with acclaimed eccentric rockers Barbez, among many others. Her latest solo CD, Thinking Out Loud, was released in 2007 on John Zorn’s legendary Tzadik label. She’ll bathe your dog and give you a haircut (”if you’re daring,” she warns) in exchange for a six-pack.
“Eclectic barely cuts it. Like the more familiar chameleons, Josh Redman, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Branford Marsalis and many others normally associated with jazz, electronica, even classical, Pam Kurstin represents the most recent version of the eclectic, improvising musician”
Patrick Awuah: Educating a new generation of African leaders
Patrick Awuah left Ghana as a teenager to attend Swarthmore College in the United States, then stayed on to build a career at Microsoft in Seattle. In returning to his home country, he has made a commitment to educating young people in critical thinking and ethical service, values he believes are crucial for the nation-building that lies ahead.Founded in 2002, his Ashesi University is already charting a new course in African education, with its high-tech facilities, innovative academic program and emphasis on leadership. It seems more than fitting that ashesi means “beginning” in Akan, one of Ghana’s native languages.
Ron Eglash: African fractals, in buildings and braids
“Ethno-mathematician” Ron Eglash is the author of African Fractals, a book that examines the fractal patterns underpinning architecture, art and design in many parts of Africa. By looking at aerial-view photos — and then following up with detailed research on the ground — Eglash discovered that many African villages are purposely laid out to form perfect fractals, with self-similar shapes repeated in the rooms of the house, and the house itself, and the clusters of houses in the village, in mathematically predictable patterns.
As he puts it: “When Europeans first came to Africa, they considered the architecture very disorganized and thus primitive. It never occurred to them that the Africans might have been using a form of mathematics that they hadn’t even discovered yet.”His other areas of study are equally fascinating, including research into African and Native American cybernetics, teaching kids math through culturally specific design tools (such as the Virtual Breakdancer applet, which explores rotation and sine functions), and race and ethnicity issues in science and technology. Eglash teaches in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and he recently co-edited the book Appropriating Technology, about how we reinvent consumer tech for our own uses.
South African singer-songwriter Vusi Mahlasela was a crucial artistic voice during the fight against apartheid, and now in the new modern-day nation. Blending traditional African music with soul and blues, his music showcases powerful vocals and poetic lyrics.
Why you should listen to him:
Vusi Mahlasela has dedicated his life to using music and words to inspire change. As a young boy in South Africa, he was routinely watched by the police because of his anti-apartheid poetry and his open support of student protest. During the final fight against apartheid, his songs of protest and solidarity became anthems — stirring the South African people to create their new nation.His lyrics touch on themes of love, family, hope and pride. Working with his own band and an international crew of genre-bending musicians, including Ladysmith Black Mambazo and fellow South African Dave Matthews, Mahlasela crafts a rich, propulsive sound that helps his words reach directly into the heart.His latest album is Guiding Star(2007), of which Dirty Linen magazine says:”Contributions by Dave Matthews, Australian didjeridu player Xavier Rudd, Welsh singer/songwriter Jem, and slide guitarist Derek Trucks transforms Guiding Star into an Earth-spanning celebration, but they only enhance Mahlasela’s Garfunkel-meets-Marley vocals, harp-like guitar fingerpicking, and mastery of his homeland’s diverse musical traditions.”
“Despite the fact that his songs are frequently filled with political subtext and despite his personal familiarity with the horrors of apartheid, his performances are optimistic and soulful, delivered with an intensity that captures the attention and embraces the heart.”
How to help Africa? Do business there
Negative images of Africa dominate the news: famine and disease, conflict and corruption. But Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the former Finance Minister of Nigeria and now a director of the World Bank, says there’s a less-told story unfolding in many African nations: one of reform, economic growth and business opportunity.
Cracking down on corruption — and the perception of corruption — will be the key to its success. She tells how high-ranking Nigerian officials taking money illicitly have been jailed, and how citizens and prospective business partners are getting at least a partial picture now of where money flows.
Why you should listen to her:
, a director of the World Bank, was Nigeria’s Finance Minister and then briefly Foreign Affairs Minister from 2003 to 2006, the first woman to hold either position.During her tenure as Finance Minister, she worked to combat corruption, make Nigeria’s finances more transparent, and institute reforms to make the nation’s economy more hospitable to foreign investment. The government unlinked its budget from the price of oil, its main export, to lessen perennial cashflow crises, and got oil companies to publish how much they pay the government.Since 2003 — when watchdog group Transparency Internationalrated Nigeria “the most corrupt place on Earth” — the nation has made headway recovering stolen assets and jailing hundreds of people engaged in international Internet 419 scams.
Okonjo-Iweala is a former World Bank vice president who graduated from Harvard and earned a Ph.D. in regional economics and development at MIT. Her son Uzodinma Iweala is the celebrated young author of Beasts of No Nation.
About this Talk
In this provocative talk, journalist Andrew Mwenda asks us to reframe the “African question” — to look beyond the media’s stories of poverty, civil war and helplessness and see the opportunities for creating wealth and happiness throughout the continent. Most important, he says, the solution to Africa’s problems is not more aid.
About Andrew Mwenda
Journalist Andrew Mwenda has spent his career fighting for free speech and economic empowerment throughout Africa. He argues that aid makes objects of the poor — they become passive recipients of charity rather than active participants in their own economic betterment.
Paleoanthropologist Zeresenay Alemseged studies the origins of humanity. Through his Dikika Research Project (DRP) in the Afar desert of Ethiopia, he has discovered the earliest known skeleton of a hominid child, the 3.3-million-year-old bones of Selam, a 3-year-old girl of the species Australopithecus afarensis. She is a member of the same species as Lucy, discovered nearby in 1974.In studying Selam’s tiny bones, Alemseged is searching for the points at which we humans diverged from apes. For instance, Selam may have had ape-like shoulders, made for climbing trees — but her legs were angled for walking upright. Her young brain, at age 3, was still growing, which implies that she was set to have a long human-style childhood. And in the hyoid bone of her throat, Alemseged sees the beginning of human speech.