The story of how Jeremiah Thoronka, a young man who grew up in poverty with his mother during Sierra Leone’s civil war, developed a practical clean energy solution for his country is a brilliant one. It is literally power by and for the people, and it has so much potential to change Sierra Leone’s longstanding energy poverty that it almost seems like magic.
“I have first-hand experience of growing up without energy or electricity,” he told the BBC. “Around 18:00, the entire neighbourhood would be in darkness.” More than 89% of the population is without electricity or gas, relying only on firewood or charcoal for light and heat.
Thoronka developed the Optim Energy device early in 2017, when he was studying in Rwanda. It uses kinetic energy and vibration to generate clean, affordable, and accessible energy, through something called a piezoelectric device. It doesn’t need a battery or an electricity connection to an external power source, it doesn’t produce emissions, and it is not reliant on weather conditions to produce electricity.
When the device is installed under a road, in an area with lots of traffic and pedestrians, it absorbs their vibrations and uses them to generate an electric current. Once the device is installed, people produce energy without realizing they are doing it.
During its prototyping phase, two of the devices powered 150 households, with 1,500 people, and 15 schools with more than 9,000 students, free of cost. “The local community grid in the rural area where OE operates experienced a 5% efficiency and 70% growth in energy service continuation and voltage stability within the same period,” he says. “The community also experienced a decrease in GHG emission, high increment in lighting systems for students, decrease in deforestation and raw material use, decrease in health issues from photochemical smog, and an increase in economic activities.”
The Optim Energy Smart Grid (OESG) is made up of automated control technologies—new and improved energy systems working cohesively with the local electrical grid system to respond digitally to the rapid change in energy demand in the community, Thoronka explains. “This system has shown an unprecedented opportunity in moving the Sierra Leone energy sector to an era of energy efficiency, and a reliable energy sector that will instantly contribute to the environmental and economic issues caused by the lack of energy access.”
The coronavirus pandemic hit while Optim Energy was still in the prototyping phase, and that forced Thoronka back to the drawing board to adapt to a situation of “huge health crisis, new movement regulations, lack of access to resources/scarcer funds, and suspension of negotiations with potential partnerships that were close to completion.” He developed a new sustainability strategy and risk response plan, rethinking every process.
Thoronka, who is 20, has been tinkering with the idea since high school. His first prototype was made from scavenged materials and assembled in his mother’s house.
The Sierra Leone war displaced his family, and he grew up in a poor area of Freetown with his mother. Like their neighbours, they used charcoal and firewood to generate heat and light, and he could see the consequences – children suffered from respiratory problems and struggled to keep up with schoolwork without proper light; there were frequent house fires; forests were devastated for firewood; deforestation caused flooding and landslides; and there were water shortages..
He’s an anomaly, says Thoronka – “a young man from a community where energy is a luxury that only the rich could afford who became very interested in renewable energy development and climate change.”
It seems clear that his brilliance has been recognized along the way. When he was 10, he won a scholarship to attend one of the best high schools in the region, which had electricity in abundance. He was studying at the African Leadership University in Rwanda when he developed his brilliant device, and he is now a final year student pursuing a BA (Hons) degree in Global Challenges with a focus on energy and climate change. The program aims to provide students with a launchpad for careers that address one of the world’s seven grand challenges.
His supervisors at university say that while Thoronka was focused on finding a solution that would help people from his local community, it is a solution that 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.
In March, Thoronka received a Commonwealth Youth Award.”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.”
The award has opened new doors, including a partnership with the United Nations Development Programme to work on an energy project on Sierra Leone’s coast.
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.
Despite all the pandemic’s challenges, it also gives us an opportunity to redesign how we want our societies to work, he says, including moving to a fully sustainable energy system in the next 20-30 years. “More jobs will be created from energy services by 2035, our systems will be more efficient, more finances will be available for start-ups, and more mini-grids will have entered the market.”
(Meanwhile, earlier this year, the World Bank approved a $50 million grant from the International Development Association to improve access to electricity in Sierra Leone. The project will provide electricity to households, businesses, health clinics and schools, and support replacement of costly fuel generation plants with low cost power, freeing up resources for other urgent socio-economic needs. This project will provide electricity to approximately 276,000 people and about 700 health facilities and schools.)
How pedestrians are lighting homes in Sierra Leone. BBC, Jul. 27, 2021
A Bright Light in Clean Energy for Sierra Leone. Musings for a better world, Oct. 9, 2020
BBC’s Business Daily broadcast “Electrifying Sierra Leone” on Aug. 11, 2021.