This weekend, I finally got to watch The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, the Netflix feature film based on William Kamkwamba’s inspiring and bestselling book on how he helped bring water and electricity to his village near Kasungu, which in turn greatly benefited both his family and the local community.
Chiwetel Ejiofor’s directorial debut is beautifully filmed on location and is a fantastic advertisement for the beauty of Malawi and the enormous potential of the country’s youth. Apart from the exquisite cinematography, the story that emerges is not one of despair but of hope, where creativity, hard work and perseverance lead to good results.
And all of this began with an idea for a windmill that a young boy got from reading a book at his school library. The final product of his idea materialised not from accessing a generous amount of financial resources, but from materials that young Kamkwamba was able to assemble from a scrapyard.
Ideas can be variously defined. They may refer to an opinion or belief or a plan. An idea is also often understood as a thought or suggestion of a possible course of action that is generated either with intent or created unintentionally.
Ideas can powerfully influence development policy, as my colleagues Desmond McNeill and Morten Bøås argue in their book Global Institutions and Development: Framing the World?. For them, an idea is more than a slogan or a buzzword—one that is capable of functioning in both academic and policy domains. But what makes an idea powerful, they argue, is the process of “framing” it during adoption.
Such framing may occur when an issue or topic first appears on an agenda and how it subsequently shapes not just our thoughts but also our actions. However, while an idea may be further consolidated and refined in the framing process, there is also a risk of it being distorted and subverted. For example, in trying to reach a consensus, an idea may be blurred or used in an unsuitable context, which may be contrary to the original intention, thereby weakening its potential impact. McNeill and Bøås find that a successful idea—understood as one that strongly influences a development agenda—typically has institutional backing.
William Kamkwamba’s brilliant and innovative idea has catapulted him to worldwide fame. He received scholarships to study in Malawi and the United States and has, according to several reports, followed up his first windmill with ideas for irrigation and educational projects.
Although Kamkwamba subsequently received institutional backing, his original home-grown idea was hugely successful without substantial financial resources. Development is thus not always about the money. Ideas matter, and can be game-changers in any given context. n