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Sierra Leone: A reservoir of untapped innovative talent

  • Kelvin Doe and David Sengeh in an MIT lab

By Kemo Cham

Kelvin Doe made history in 2015 when he became the second Sierra Leonean to be named in Forbe’s prestigious 30 Under 30, a list of the world’s most influential young game changers.

That’s just one of several accolades the boy from Dwazark, a deprived suburb in the west end of Freetown, has enjoyed since his dramatic rise to global fame.

Kelvin was made popular by his invention of a radio transmitter with parts from rubbish dumps. But long before the lad also known as DJ Focus came to the limelight, Sierra Leone had been home to many talented young innovators like him or even more talented than him, like 17-year old Samuel Elba.

Samuel, like Kelvin and others in a growing list of tech savvy Sierra Leonean kids, is part of a reality that represents a perfect illustration of the old English adage: ‘Necessity is the mother of invention.’

Samuel lives at New England Ville, a stone-throw from Dwazark. At his age he already has prototypes of three key inventions – a generator, an air conditioner, and a radio transmitter.

“In my area, there is not much electricity supply. People buy generators and I don’t have that kind of money to buy generator and I thought if I build a generator I can comfortably live my life,” he explains to Politico his most precious invention.

Samuel began fixing parts together in 2009; he was 9 years old. Back then he created a generator that used water as fuel. He has since made another generator which he calls the ‘Free Energy Generator, which uses no fuel. All you need to do is turn a lever fitted to one side of the machine for few seconds and it produces electricity.

Samuel also created a devise that ensures that his pass-worded room door is remotely locked and unlocked. He calls it Automatic Call Switcher. Another devise, the Automatic Call Notifier, allows him to tell from a distance if some uninvited guest entered his home, via a message to his cellphone.

Innovate Salone (IS), an organization which inspires youths into seeking solution through innovation, says Sierra Leone has many such talents who only need a little attention to harness their potentials. The organization conducts an annual competition for pupils with innovative ideas of solving local problems. Kelvin was one of eight finalists during its maiden competition in 2012.

Lagging Behind

IS seeks to dispel the consensus that people in Sierra Leone and Africa as a whole don’t have smart kids or smart people, says its Programmes Director, Mahmoud Javombo.

“What we lack as a continent and as a country is the disconnect between these young people that are really creative and the opportunities that are there.”

IS is the flagship project of Global Minimum (GMin), co-founded by another Sierra Leonean tech genius, David Sengeh, a doctoral candidate with the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US. GMin runs the same programs in Kenya and South Africa.

Since 2012, the competition has received 705 prototypes. And since 2015, every year 11 finalists have been identified.

Finalists are provided funding to build their prototypes, and then proceed to an Innovation Camp. They are subsequently connected to a network of mentors at top universities in the US such as Harvard and MIT.

GMin also maintains relationship with institutions like the African Leadership Academy, and the African Leadership University. Finalists of the competition have traveled widely thanks to these collaborations, going to places like the innovation camp organised by the Clinton Global Initiative; the Rokefela Foundation’s Next Century Innovation Award; and the UNICEF Summit in Finland.

But despite these opportunities, says Javombo, much more is needed to have Sierra Leone benefits from its reservoir of innovative talents.

To start with, he tells Politico, government and its partners need to institutionalise efforts to promote innovation. One way to ensure this is to review the education curriculum and give much more attention to technical education, he adds, stressing that it shouldn’t be just about people going to school and making straight As.

In a small room within the Innovate Salone offices at Rawdon Street in central Freetown, about five young lads are seated around a table. On another table at the corner of the room is a drone. It was shipped from the US but was discovered to be faulty and these kids have been tasked to fix it. On a third table are packed several electrical equipments.

This is the Innovation Lab run by Innovate Salone.

Two of the kids are busy on their laptop computers. One of them, Joseph Jawah Kebbie, is developing some computer coding programme. He wouldn’t explain further for security reasons.

Kebbie, a secondary school pupil, is an alumnus of a US State Department’s funded exchange programme – YES IEARN, where he said he developed interest in coding.

Two other kids are fidgeting on some gadgets. One of them, Alusine Mansaray, says he is trying to make a ‘rechargeable light with a camera’.

Most of what is used in the creation of almost all of the prototypes presented to the annual Innovate Salone competition are made from materials gathered from rubbish dumps. The idea of this lab, explains Javombo, is to provide them with the relevant tools needed.

“Remember [that] when Kelvin was pitching his idea he was talking about I had to go to the dustbin to get materials. So imagine with an innovation lab, where the tools are there. These youngsters can just come in to access the tools.”

Like the Innovation competition, the Innovation Lab was piloted in Sierra Leone in 2014 before been introduced to Kenya and South Africa. Javombo says due to the interruption by the Ebola epidemic and lack of funding, the Freetown project is lagging far behind.

“Sierra Leone was the founding ground of the innovation challenge. And we are actually doing the same thing. But when it comes to innovation, South Africa and Sierra Leone are like kind of apart. They are more into innovation because they do have institutions that support them. They do have government support.”

Study abroad

Samuel was a participant in the 2016 edition of the Innovate Salone competition. He submitted his Energy Free Generator project.

He explains that the machine produces a 12 volt alternate current, with diods, which is converted to basic current on winding. It produces a total of 220 volts electricity, same as the generators that come from China, Japan and India which are sold in shops across central Freetown, he says.

Samuel insists that his invention stands out because it’s environmentally friendly, compared to conventional generators. It doesn’t produce smoke, which is carbon monoxide, a dangerous substance, he points out, adding that it makes no noise.

The normal generator has the potential to burn a house because of the fuel they use, this one can’t, he stressed.

The generator cost Samuel about Le350, 000 to make. He says he uses his lunch money to buy materials he uses to make his innovations. He also receives supports from his manager.

A student at the Prince of Wales High School, Samuel says he works on his innovation during holidays. He works for four hours, in the morning, when everyone else is asleep. This, he says, allows him to help his single mother do some domestic chores during the day.

Endowed with such talents, Sierra Leonean kids hardly have any opportunity to nurture them. There is no known school or college in the country which provides a course on innovation. That’s why the dream of most of them is to study abroad.

Kelvin spent three weeks at MIT under its visiting practitioners programme. That’s where Samuel want to study.

Innovation is not the priority for those at the top here, he tells me.

Samuel’s next project is a tricycle which will have a dual purpose, providing power and serving as means of transportation. If he has all the materials he needs, which costs an estimated Le3m, he would complete a prototype in a few months.

“Fuel,” he says, “is not in my regime.”

(C) Politico 2017