Malawi’s genius farmer

Frederick Miska is a farmer from north Malawi. Despite having left school at ten, he's got a better understanding of creative science than most university students. Amongst his homemade inventions; a mobile phone charger, a fan, and even... electricity. Read more and see the pictures.


Frederick Miska is a farmer from north Malawi. Despite having left school at ten, he's got a better understanding of creative science than most university students. Amongst his homemade inventions; a mobile phone charger, a fan, and even... electricity.

Frederick was discovered earlier this year by science researcher and blogger Mzamose Gondwe. His farm sits above the Henga Valley in Nchenachena, at an altitude of 2,803 metres.

Filmed and edited by Mzamose Gondwe.

“He told me: ‘I just kept trying, trying, and trying until they eventually worked’”

Mzamose Gondwe, also from north Malawi, is currently on a science fellowship in Perth, Australia. She came across Frederick Miska in February and posted the following account of his work on her blog, "Communicating science, the African way".

Nested in the luxurious Henga Valley of Northern Malawi is a remote village so beautiful they called it so twice, Nchenachena. Blessed with rich soil and a flowing river, most of its inhabitants eek a meagre living from the land. Modern technology is slowly coming to this rural populace; hot pink and luminous green logos of Zain and TNM [telecommunications companies] painted across shanty shops make a sharp contrast to the lush vegetation and thatched huts. In these shops, locals come to recharge their Chinese-made mobile phones because ESCOM's [Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi] rural electrification programme only benefited the very few who could afford it. Not to be hard done by this, one farmer took matters into his own hands. (...)

Frederick Msiska dropped out of school when he was ten years old because his family could not afford his school fees, but his lack of formal science education has not stopped him. When asked what motivated him, he says: "I looked around and I found that certain things were missing in my life so I studied very closely things that the government supplies. I made them myself through trial and error. I just kept trying, trying, and trying until they eventually worked".

Standing by his biogas toilet.

Handheld chemical sprayer (battery operated).

Frederick is also a lead farmer, appointed by the government; he trains people in the area on good farming practice. His office is a smart small thatched building detached from his main house. Inside his tidy office is a rickety table covered with tatty exercise books and a well-used bible. Carefully packed away in the corner are the remains of his past invention attempts.

Frederick in his office. Photo: Self Help Africa.

The walls are plastered with large posters listing the names of local farm clubs and information about seeds, pesticides and fertilizer, but at the bottom of one poster, something catches my eye.

Poster on the wall, Zinchito Mu 2008 (Work in 2008) ‘Kuzenga office (build office) Kupanga Luso (make things with my skills) Kupanga Sipuleya (make a sprayer) Kupanga fani (make a fan) Kupanga magetsi (make electricity) ‘.

He proudly shows off his inventions, delighted to have an interested audience to demonstrate his creations to. Our conversation was not only jovial; it saddened me when he said: "Farmers do not contribute to national development, it is only those who are educated who contribute to development". I was dumbstruck and short of words in my limited Tumbuka to say, although education is important, even without it you are still a valuable member of society and can still make a significant difference to your family, your community and the country. 

I was even more distraught when he told how he had dismantled his biogas toilet for fear of imprisonment. He had heard of young boy, who dropped of school at 12, in the south of the country who had from scrap materials set up a community radio station and was later arrested. What Frederick had failed to understand was that this boy was arrested for operating a radio station without a licence. The boy, Gabriel Kondesi, was eventually released and it was not long before the Malawi Communication Regulatory Authority (MACRA) recognised the brilliance of this young boy and awarded him a licence. (....a few weeks later the Director of MACRA was suspiciously reassigned - reasons for this are unknown). Gabriel Kondesi is another perfect example of a science hero, someone who overcame the odds, and made a scientific contribution that impacted positively on the lives of his community. His radio station used an old cassette player, a simple Nokia mobile phone, capacitors, two aerials and transistors.

Gabriel Kondesi became a household name in Malawi so much so that when I was in Malawi and I randomly asked people in town to name a scientist they had heard of, they often mentioned his name. The innovations of Frederick Msiska, Gabriel Kondesi and William Kamkwamba (the Malawian boy who built a windmill) are to be recognised, promoted and supported - locally, nationally and regionally, although how best to support these talents is open for discussion.

They are testament to the saying ‘necessity is the mother of innovation' and I will add invention! In a contest of creativity and innovation, pitting the urban populace vs. the rural inhabitants in Africa, my experience so far suggests that the rural population would win hands a long mile... And a majority of the African scientists that I interviewed echoed similar statements, that a rural and/or less privileged environment compels people to be more resourceful. In town, if you need something, you save up and then buy it; out there in the countryside, when you need something you make it yourself. Now, if only we could support and harness this creative resourcefulness, steadfast determination, and imaginative innovation in a meaningful way that can make the lives of even just a few more people in Africa that much better.... And by this I don't mean a massive large scale project but something that will encourage, sustain and support such innovation to benefit communities."


Frederick built a hen-house and goat pens on stilts specially designed to collect eggs and manure. Photo: Self Help Africa.