Nearly three quarters of the population of Sierra Leone struggle to get access to electricity, but a device that harnesses the power of vibrations is bringing light to communities in energy poverty.
Growing up during the civil war in Sierra Leone, Jeremiah Thoronka had a difficult childhood. Living with his single mother in a slum on the outskirts of Freetown, the country's capital, they relied on dirty charcoal and firewood to generate heat and light. "I have first-hand experience of growing up without energy or electricity," says Thoronka, who is now 20. In the evening his entire neighbourhood would be in darkness." When he was 10 years old, he was awarded a scholarship to attend one of the best schools in the region. "Every day I was moving between two worlds," he says. "There was electricity in abundance at school." Back home he witnessed the devastating effects of energy poverty. Many local children suffered from respiratory problems caused by smoke inhalation and struggled to keep up with their schoolwork without proper light. Families' reliance on firewood and cheap kerosene generators led to frequent house fires.
Thoronka’s solution was to invent a device that would provide people in his community with clean, affordable and reliable energy. When he was 17 and studying at the African Leadership University in Rwanda, Thoronka founded Optim Energy, an innovative start-up that uses kinetic energy – the energy objects have when in motion – to generate clean electricity. He developed a piezoelectric device that harnesses energy from heat, movement and pressure – all which occur naturally in the environment.
When the device is placed under a road, in an area with a lot of traffic and passers-by, it absorbs the vibrations they create and uses them to generate an electric current. As nothing is being burned, no emissions are released in the process. Unlike other forms of renewable energy, such as solar or wind power, the device does not rely on certain weather conditions to produce electricity.
Optim Energy ran a successful pilot programme in Thoronka's local area, Kuntoluh. Using two devices, the start-up was able to provide power free-of-charge to 150 households, made up of 1,500 people, and 15 schools, with over 9,000 students. The community was incredibly receptive to Thoronka's solution and were happy to switch their dirty power supply for a cleaner, more efficient option.
Children's school performance and health improved once they gained access to lighting and their homes were no longer smoke-ridden, he says. Street lighting has improved safety in the area and businesses are now able to stay open later into the evening. Deforestation has also fallen in the area since people no longer need firewood to heat their homes, according to Thoronka, who is now studying at the University of Kigali, Rwanda.
Thoronka's work has also drawn international praise. In March, he was given the Commonwealth Youth Award, which is awarded every year to five young people who are transforming lives in their communities and helping achieve the United Nations' sustainable development goals.
"The start-up's use of piezoelectric technology to generate clean, affordable energy, and smart digital communication demonstrates an impressive display of innovation, creativity and thought leadership," says Snober Abbasi, a Commonwealth spokesperson. "Optim Energy offers an unprecedented opportunity to both tackle growing environmental and economic issues, and move the energy sector to an era of efficiency and reliability if it continues to scale."
Thoronka plans to invest the £2,000 ($2,800) prize money into Optim Energy and start deploying devices in cities and coastal regions. By 2030, Optim Energy intends to provide power to 100,000 people.
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