Planting Trees and Moving Windmills in Malawi

At my high school we've been learning about "indicators," so I want to share a good one for the problem of deforestation in my native Malawi: by this time next year, my mother will have spent 1,095 hours looking for firewood just so my family can eat.

That's three hours per day spent walking to the nearest blue gum grove, a walk that only gets longer each year. This is in central Malawi, near the city of Kasungu, and my mother is not alone. In most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, over 90 percent of people are without electricity and use firewood for cooking and heating. In Malawi, that number is even greater.

My grandpa tells me how thick forests once covered our entire country, so dense and dark that a man could lose his sense of time and direction in them. Those forests have now been reduced by more than 80 percent, and the results may spell doom for us all. Malawi loses more than 200 miles of forests each year, most cut down illegally by men without jobs who sell it on the roadside as firewood. The big tobacco estates in Malawi also use the wood to flu-cure the leaves for auction. Even the small-plot tobacco farmers, such as my father, must take trees to build shelters for drying leaves. Because of termites, these shelters never last longer than a season.

As many know, trees work like big pumping machines, sucking up the water from the earth and releasing it into the atmosphere, where it returns in the form of rain. Without the trees, this rainmaking is halted. And when there is rain, nothing is left to catch it, so it simply washes into the rivers, along with the precious topsoil and fertilizer from our maize fields, which we depend on to provide our food.

For the lucky few in Malawi, electricity comes from hydro plants on the Shire River. So when the floods take our topsoil into the river, they also carry tons of garbage and silt - clogging up the dams and shutting down the plants. The power plants must stop all operations and dredge the river, which in turn causes power cuts. And because this process is so expensive, the power companies must charge extra for electricity, making it even more difficult to afford.

This cycle caused severe droughts in 2000 and 2005, both of which led to famines. The first killed nearly ten thousand people and nearly took my own family. We lived for months on one meal per day and dropped down to nothing. During this time I was also forced to drop out of school because my father couldn't pay my fees. However, I managed to continue my education at a small local library funded by the Americans. There, I fell in love with science books and managed to teach myself about how motors and electricity worked. Another book featured windmills on the cover, and said they were used to pump water and generate power.

I was so inspired I began collecting scrap metal and old bicycle and tractor pieces and managed to build a windmill of my own, one that powered four light bulbs. Another pumped water for irrigation. (You can read the whole story in my new book "The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind," which I wrote with Bryan Mealer.)

News of my windmill spread around the world, and thanks to the book and some generous well-wishers, I was be able to return to school and make much-needed improvements to my village, such as install solar panels and drill a borehole for clean drinking water. For the first time, my family has lights and running water. But I still haven't solved the problem of firewood. Each day, my mother has no choice but to walk all those miles to collect a handful of wood. Recently I've tinkered with some alternatives: an experiment to create biogas out of goat's poop was just disastrous and nearly destroyed my mother's kitchen. But a plan for a tin-foil solar oven is still ongoing. I hope it works.

So in the meantime, I'm taking a more basic approach: planting more trees. Through my foundation, The Moving Windmills Project, one of my goals is to reforest my district, along with designing simple methods of bringing wind power and irrigation to Malawi's villages. If I can manage this, and finally perfect that solar oven (never mind the goat's poop), perhaps one day we can enjoy the forests the way grandpa remembered.