Thoronka has been hailed for providing renewable energy to 10,000 people

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. &Around 18:00, the 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.

Forests in the area were destroyed as people chopped down trees for firewood. Environmental degradation and deforestation have left Sierra Leone highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and extreme events such as flooding and landslides, according to the government’s national adaptation programme. It led Thoronka to search for a solution.

&I wanted to develop a more sustainable energy system, educate people about energy efficiency and stop their overuse of natural resources,& he says.

&Ensuring the provision of affordable energy services is a huge challenge. The lack of electricity poses significant challenges to economic growth and development, health services and the possibilities for learning,& says Ingrid Rohrer, an energy specialist at SEforALL.

&People without access to electricity need to purchase costly charging services for their phones, expensive batteries for their lights, or kerosene, which when used indoors have negative health impacts,& said Rohrer.

Even those who are connected to the grid experience frequent power cuts due to low energy capacity and ageing infrastructure, she adds. Electricity infrastructure in the country dates back to the 1960s and is in urgent need of modernisation, although recent investment has meant it is now being slowly updated.

&It is inefficient, costing millions of dollars and pushing so many people into energy poverty,& says Thoronka.

&Even in the big cities, people cannot connect to the national grid. There is a vacuum of energy in rural areas.&

Thoronka’s solution was to invent a device that would provide people in his community with clean, affordable and reliable energy.

&Access to energy is a human right. We cannot function in an energy-less society,& he said.

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.

Perhaps the most attractive element of the concept is that once the device has been installed, people produce energy without even realising. Unlike other forms of renewable energy, such as solar or wind power, the device does not rely on certain weather conditions to produce electricity.

&The Sun is not always shining, water is drying up, fossil fuels are not always going to be used, but people are always moving,& says Thoronka.

His supervisors at university say that Thoronka was particularly driven by his desire to find a solution that would help people from his local community, but it could be used almost anywhere in the world where there is heavy traffic.

&The device will mean more time for children to study and be digitally included in what is happening in the world, as well as the support of other economic activities which are desperately needed to move the country forward,& says Winnie Muchina, acting programme lead of the Global Challenges Faculty at the African Leadership University in Rwanda.

Energy poverty is a major challenge in Sierra Leone. The West African country has one of the lowest access rates for electricity in the world. According to the UN-backed organisation Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL), just 26% of the population have access to electricity. In rural areas, only 6% of people have electricity and most people rely on solar lanterns and dry-cell batteries as they cannot connect to the national grid.

At a pilot program in Thoronka’s hometown of Makawo, Optim Energy successfully deployed two devices which powered 150 nearby homes and 15 schools, totalling services to more than 10,000 people, 9,000 of whom were students. He is currently looking to expand into the healthcare sector, presumably utilising the busy roads and walkways near hospitals to generate required power for vaccine refrigeration.

In 2021, out of 3,500 contestants, Thoronka picked up the R1 563 372,00 reward for his work at the Global Student Prize. He also won the regional top student award from, and another R62 955,00 to go with it. Hollywood mega film star, Hugh Jackman, presented the award virtually, saying, “You’ve made an enormous difference to your community and far beyond. I’m sure that you will now use this incredible platform to make an even bigger impact.”

“It’s amazing, it’s wonderful. Words can’t express how I feel about this,” Thoronka was quoted as saying. and

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