The Africa Windmill Project

10/22/09

It’s not a typical thing to build a windmill in your backyard, but for John Drake, it just made sense. The architect who grew up in Texas—a place known for its wind irrigation techniques—recently designed and built a prototype of a windmill that he hopes will soon be used in Malawi, Africa. The goal? To irrigate crops year-round and help begin to change the drastic malnutrition statistics in Malawi.

The idea started back in 2007 when John went on a COTN Venture Trip to Malawi with Summit Church in Orlando, Florida. Though the group focused on AIDS education, John was struck with the realization that malnutrition is just as serious of a problem: the average Malawian diet being only 300 calories a day. A malnourished person can’t even sustain serious AIDS treatment because they are too weak. And the root of malnutrition? Not enough food, which is the result of not being able to farm year-round due to Malawi’s dry season. “In Malawi, you don’t have freezes, so you could technically have three growing seasons so you could grow different vegetables year-round,” John says. “If you had an irrigation system.”

Once he returned home, John began to experiment with different types of windmills in his backyard. “They need something that can be built locally out of locally found materials,” John says. “I went back in time to the original windmill from about 500 AD. It’s a vertical axes. I kind of reinvented it and simplified it to where it could be built out of bamboo, a sustainable construction material that’s found all over Malawi.”

As the actual windmill took shape, John formed a nonprofit called Africa Windmill Project, which is partnering with COTN to do pilot projects in Mgwayi village in Malawi. They’ll pair the wind irrigation with soil conservation techniques “to try to stabilize the food supply there,” he says.

John returned to Malawi this past March to begin that project with the construction of a prototype windmill in Mgwayi—four times larger than the one in his backyard. With a trial-and-error mentality and help from children and men from the nearby village, the windmill was a success.

“The windmill is designed to be easily replicated,” John says. “The idea is we get it going in one village and have one or two families growing crops year-round on two half-acre farms and then work our way up to get the whole village growing food year-round. Then, in a perfect world, a village close by would take the initiative to start irrigating their crops using wind irrigation—the technology would replicate itself.”

Also underway is a partnership with Bunda College of Agriculture in Malawi where students and professors will conduct research studies on the country’s windmap and how the windmill will affect farming. Their findings could result in grants in the future.

John has high hopes for how the Africa Windmill Project will specifically affect children in Malawi, including those part of COTN’s family. “It will enable the villages to provide food substance to the kids year-round,” he says. “Secondly, when the kids are old enough, the Africa Windmill Project will teach the kids the latest in sustainable agriculture technology and practices so they’ll become the leaders of producing—even if they’re farmers in villages. Because not every kid is going to become a doctor or a lawyer, somebody’s got to become the leader of a village.”

To learn more about Africa Windmill Project, visit the website at: www.africawindmill.org.

How the windmill works...

In layman’s terms, the wind pushes on the square panels, which makes the windmill spin on a vertical axis, which then pulls a rope that has many knots. On the knots are hand-cut rubber washers (made out of bicycle tires). The spinning windmill pulls this rope with the washers through a perforated pipe that’s submerged in the water hole, so every foot of rope that’s pulled out of the pipe brings a one-foot column of water out of the hand-dug shallow well and into a catch basin. The basin fills up with water and then the farmers can release the water out of the basin whenever they need to water the crops.