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“The future is green”: youth brings clean power to thousands in Sierra Leone

F dS, Y
topics: Innovation
by: Cyril Zenda
located in: Sierra Leone
tags: Africa, climate crisis, entrepeneur, green energy, Jeremiah Thoronka

A first-hand experience of power poverty inspired an African teenage boy to invent a device that uses kinetic energy from vibration to generate clean power.

A single mother battling terminal breast cancer while struggling to raise two boys in a slum on the outskirts of Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, in the aftermath of a bloody civil war had taught her children a profound lesson: ‘If you don’t like your situation, only you can change your destiny.’

It was a piece of advice that deeply resonated with one of her sons. As the family eked out an impoverished existence in complete darkness in the West African nation, which suffers from severe energy poverty (estimated at 90 percent), Jeremiah Thoronka did exactly what his now late mother had instructed and sought to end this energy crisis. He went on to invent a device that uses kinetic energy from vehicular and pedestrian traffic to generate clean power. 

It is for this invention that the name Jeremiah Thoronka has not only become an international news item, but also brought rewards and global recognition to the 21-year-old who was born during a civil war.

Generating power from vibrations

At 17, when he was studying at the African Leadership University in Rwanda, Thoronka invented piezoelectric devices that, when placed under roads, soccer pitches and other surfaces, convert kinetic energy in the form of vibrations and movement into electric current without need for battery storage. He went on to launch a start-up called Optim Energy, through which he has been able to take his invention to the ground.

“I used my skills in science to develop Optim Energy, an innovative piezoelectric device that harnesses energy from heat, vibrations and weather, all which naturally occur in the environment, to create affordable, accessible and clean power,” Thoronka said of his invention. “Since 2017, I have grown Optim Energy into a larger initiative aiming to build a sustainable energy sector in Sierra Leone, diminish greenhouse gas emissions and educate citizens on climate change.”

Optim Energy ran a successful pilot programme in the young inventor’s neighbourhoods of Makawo in the northern part of Sierra Leone and Kuntoluh, east of Freetown. With only two devices, the start-up provided free electricity to 150 households comprising around 1,500 people, as well as to 15 schools attended by over 9,000 students.

Inspired by past hardships

Thoronka’s first-hand experience of the harsh reality of fuel poverty in his country became his inspiration and sparked the idea for this invention.

“I grew up not knowing the importance of energy. The lack of electricity in my town meant that we could only prepare food using firewood or charcoal,” Thoronka said as he introduced himself at the 2019 United Nations Academic Impact and Millennium Campus Network Fellowship, where he was recognised. 

“The process of getting firewood made all of us children very sad. As a child, it was my first duty to help my mother gather firewood and bring it home from the bush. I grew up in a country where over 89 percent of the population is suffering from energy deficiency.” 

Thoronka, who is also one of the World Wildlife Fund’s top 100 Young African Conservation Leaders, is a passionate renewable energy and climate change advocate.

According to him, energy and environmental problems are closely related since it is nearly impossible to produce energy without it having a significant environmental impact. He maintains that the ecological issues directly related to energy production include air, thermal and water pollution, and solid waste disposal. Emissions  from fossil fuel combustion are the primary cause of urban air pollution and global warming.

“The sun is not always shining, water is drying up, fossil fuels are on the way out, but people are always moving,” Thoronka said about the advantages of his invention. 

“The future is green if we start realising and financing Africa’s energy revolution,” he added. 

Global Student Prize Winner

On 10 November, Thoronka was announced 2021 winner of the Chegg.org Global Student Prize, making him the inaugural taker of the new $100,000 sister award to the $1 million Global Teacher Prize. The prize is given to one exceptional student who has made a real impact on learning, the lives of their peers and on society beyond.

“You’ve made an enormous difference to your community and far beyond,” said Hollywood star and humanitarian Hugh Jackman who announced Thoronka as the winner during a virtual ceremony, broadcast from UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris.

While Thoronka was surprised to have emerged as a runaway winner in a field of 3,500 nominations and applications from 94 countries around the world, to those who have known him it did not come as a shock at all.

“I am not surprised that he won the global prize because he has been consistent in everything he does, including his innovations,” Dr Victor Moinina, one of Thoronka’s mentors, told FairPlanet. “He has been working smart and hard,” Dr Moinina of the Institute of Public Administration and Management at the University of Sierra Leone added. 

Another of Thoronka’s mentors, Samuel B. Miles, a researcher, writer and explorer on decarbonised solutions for a changing world, expressed similar sentiments.

“Jeremiah is emerging as a bright young leader passionate about advancing African leadership and playing a role in the energy transition of his home country of Sierra Leone,” said Miles, who is based at the University of California in the United States. “He is proactive, respectful and tenacious in the pursuit of his ambitions. I expect him to go far.”

Striving to touch lives

“My journey and experiences have challenged me to always reflect and know I am a new breed of leader who has a lot to offer to my country, continent and the world. I will continue to aspire and refuse to succumb or settle for anything less,” Thoronka said on his Facebook page in March upon his graduation with a First Class Honours/Distinction degree in Global Challenges (with focuses in Energy and Environment) from the African Leadership University. “[I] am heading out there to touch lives, create impact and deliver on the missions I have spent so much time working on. Much is expected of me and much I have within to give back to society.”

Currently studying for a Master’s degree in Sustainable Energy and Development in the United Kingdom, Thoronka plans to use the $100,000 windfall to increase the impact of his invention in his country and beyond.

Image by James and Sarah Talalay.

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
Author
Sierra Leone
Jeremiah Thoronka has invented a device that uses kinetic energy from traffic and pedestrians to generate clean power.
Jeremiah Thoronka has invented a device that uses kinetic energy from traffic and pedestrians to generate clean power.
© Jeremiah Thoronka
With only two devices, the start-up provided free electricity to 150 households comprising around 1,500 people, as well as to 15 schools attended by over 9,000 students.
© Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images