The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is a beautiful film that tells the story of William Kamkwamba, a 13-year-old boy from Malawi who managed to bring clean water to his village for the first time. He accomplished this by building a wind turbine and a water pump with only his ingenuity, perseverance, and a few friends who believed in him.
Not only does this story touch our hearts, but it also offers valuable lessons about processes of change and innovation that we can learn from. If a child (albeit a very special one) in such circumstances could achieve this, there’s no excuse for the rest of us.
Here are William’s key lessons about the world of innovation and his journey, along with the obstacles he overcame to achieve his goal of creating wind-generated electricity to help his family.
Rain and Floods (Change and Disruption)
The film begins by presenting the agricultural way of life in Wimbe, the village where William and his family live. The boy has a talent for repairing radios, and through the news broadcast, he learns about the floods in neighboring Mozambique. Although heavy rains are frequent and expected during that time of year, the wet season will bring consequences that few dare to recognize. It seems that a drastic model change, a disruptive change, is on the horizon, as we will see in the next point.
To Cut or Not to Cut (Strategic Vision, VUCA Environments)
Alongside the news about the floods, a tobacco company offers to buy the villagers’ land, causing division within the community. Those who choose to sell their land will receive a large sum of money in a time of uncertainty but will lose their long-term livelihoods. Those who refuse to sell will have to face the floods, although they will still have their land. The choice is not easy. Another problem arises: the trees that will be cut down in the sold lands will no longer be there to prevent the flooding that will ruin the crops. The uncertainty is enormous, and difficult decisions must be made quickly. We will see the consequences a little later.
Vehicle Dump (Creative Thinking)
William has an inseparable friend, Gilbert, the son of the community leader. They often go to the vehicle dump to find spare parts for their radio repairs, and they usually find something useful. Perhaps most of the people in Wimbe see the dump as a place to get rid of old appliances and vehicles. But William uses creative thinking to see opportunities where others don’t. And that will be crucial for the outcome of the story.
School (Continuous Learning)
The school year begins, and William attends class for the first time. At school, he discovers science alongside Mr. Kachigunda, and for the first time, he hears about electricity. Being naturally curious, the boy senses that this is a pivotal moment and sets out to make the most of his studies, even on nights without electricity. Something is brewing in his mind.
The Library (Research)
Next to the school is the library, where William finds a book called “Using Energy” that inspires him to build the future windmill. The pieces start coming together. The problem is that only students whose families have paid their fees are allowed in, and the Kamkwamba family is struggling financially. However, William will find an unthinkable solution.
The Teacher and the Sister (Negotiation)
William discovers that Mr. Kachigunda, his teacher, and his sister are secretly seeing each other, as he witnessed them kissing one night. He masterfully uses this information to unlock two crucial phases of his adventure. First, he lets the teacher know that he is aware of the romance and understands that it must remain a secret because they are not married. He subtly suggests that in exchange for his silence, the teacher should grant him unlimited access to the library, which he does without hesitation. The second unlocking moment involves the sister, who, the night before running away with Kachigunda, gives William the dynamo from the teacher’s bike.
Famine (Design Thinking)
The trees in the lands sold to the tobacco company were cut down, and without trees, the water flooded the crops. The situation does not improve during the dry season, as no plants grow. And without crops, there is no food. William analyzes the harsh reality of his village and the food needs, which finally pushes him toward his goal of creating electricity from the wind. He builds a water pump to irrigate the crops. He could have built the water pump earlier with his knowledge, but the real challenge was making it work, and for that, he extensively used innovative methodologies.
Miniature Windmill (Lean, Agile, Leadership)
Building a large-scale windmill that generates electricity would have been too overwhelming for young William. Therefore, his first goal is to validate the idea with a miniature prototype. He mobilizes a group of young people, whom he once helped repair a radio, to assist him in constructing the prototype according to his instructions. In this case, he connects the prototype to a battery-less radio. If the spinning blades generate enough electricity to activate the radio through a homemade dynamo, then the test is considered a success. And indeed, it was. This marks the first accomplishment of the project and further engages the group of young people.
The Father (Resistance to Change)
Trywell, William’s father, stubbornly continues working the arid land, despite the improbability of a harvest. When William tries to show him that the invention produces electricity, Trywell reacts angrily, demanding that his son also work the land. William needs his father’s bicycle for the full-scale windmill, but Trywell refuses even when his son asks him again, this time with the support of the young group. It’s Agnes, Trywell’s wife, who opens his eyes. “He tried to confront me with his friends, over the bike,” Trywell tells her. “What else do I have to lose?” Agnes replies, “Everywhere I follow you, I lose something. My parents when I came here. Then the land. And then Annie. I don’t blame you. I just ask you, how long will we keep losing things? Nothing we do works.”
The Windmill (Growth, Key Partners)
The final part of the film involves the community of Wimbe in constructing the ultimate windmill, with the support of William’s parents and Gilbert, the future community leader, whose father is gravely ill. The construction is a success, and the windmill provides electricity to the water pump, drawing water from the well and irrigating the Kamkwamba’s crops. With water and unity, Wimbe will survive the scarcity.
William Kamkwamba (The Product Manager)
We cannot conclude this article without acknowledging William’s persistence and the crucial role he played as a true product manager. He identified a solution to a specific need, adapted it, involved key actors and resources, negotiated during critical moments, and ultimately built the prototype and the windmill. And this is a film that, even if you have read this whole article, is worth watching.
If you’re curious about Product Management, you might want to take a look at Ratingperson.
Author: Carlos Guerra, Client Content Manager at Ratingperson