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How pedestrians are lighting homes in Sierra Leone
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Electric lighting allows businesses to stay open later into the evening once it gets dark (Credit: Roberto Nencini/Alamy)
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.
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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.

Jeremiah Thoronka is trying to combat energy poverty in his home country of Sierra Leone (Credit: Sheillah Munsabe)

Jeremiah Thoronka is trying to combat energy poverty in his home country of Sierra Leone (Credit: Sheillah Munsabe)

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. 

"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."

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," he says. "We cannot function in an energy-less society."

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.

Once the device has been installed, people produce energy without even realising

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.

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"The greatest benefits of piezoelectric devices are that no battery and no electricity connection to an external power source is needed," says Rohrer from SEforALL.

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.

Thoronka began developing the piezoelectric device while he was at university in Kigali, Rwanda (Credit: Brian Sankoh)

Thoronka began developing the piezoelectric device while he was at university in Kigali, Rwanda (Credit: Brian Sankoh)

"People accept solutions that are local. They will open their doors if they can relate to it," Thoronka says, adding that the benefits of adopting clean energy are clearly visible.

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.

Besides improving energy access, Thoronka is on a mission to educate people in Sierra Leone about the environmental impacts of their energy use, and encourage them to use power efficiently and sparingly.

Optim Energy has launched an energy efficiency calculator, which tracks people's consumption patterns based on their appliance usage. The online tool helps people work out how efficient their homes and businesses are, and aims to reduce overall energy demand and intensity on the grid.

The start-up also works with local school students. "We educate them about why they should take responsibility for the environment and change their consumption behaviour," he says.

During Sierra Leone's lockdown, energy demand skyrocketed as people returned to their family homes, overloading the national grid

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.

"The Commonwealth award goes beyond recognition," says Thoronka. "It gave Optim Energy a stamp of approval and has opened new doors." The company is just starting a partnership with the United Nations Development Programme on an energy project on the busy coastline of Sierra Leone.

Thoronka also hopes to provide power to health clinics in Sierra Leone. "The health sector is struggling with energy poverty. In the long term, we are planning on using Optim Energy for hospitals in busy areas," he says.

The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated existing challenges around energy poverty. Healthcare facilities without power cannot keep medication and vaccines cool, provide light at night to treat patients or communicate with doctors at other locations, says Rohrer.

"The Covid-19 pandemic has shown there is an urgent need for innovative solutions and social entrepreneurship to provide power to health facilities and to ensure proper cooling chains to be able to effectively distribute the vaccines," she says.

Residents of slums on the outskirts of Freetown, Sierra Leone, have to rely on burning firewood for light and heat (Credit: Getty Images)

Residents of slums on the outskirts of Freetown, Sierra Leone, have to rely on burning firewood for light and heat (Credit: Getty Images)

Bright Sparks: Sustainability

This article is part of BBC Future's Bright Sparks: Sustainability series, which sets out to find the young minds who are finding new and innovative ways of tackling environmental problems. They are the next generation of engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs who are taking control of their own future by seeking solutions to climate change, pollution, biodiversity loss and over-consumption.

During Sierra Leone's lockdown, energy demand skyrocketed as people returned to their family homes, overloading the national grid, adds Thoronka. He hopes that as the country recovers from the pandemic, it will prioritise green solutions and invest in clean energy.

He believes that as cities continue to grow, there will be huge potential to harness energy generated from movement. Africa's urban population is growing rapidly as more and more people move to cities in search of jobs.

"Movement is a huge energy resource that is currently going to waste," says Thoronka. "We should use it as a source of power." 

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Bright Sparks Sustainability

This article is part of BBC Future's Bright Sparks: Sustainability series, which sets out to find the young minds who are finding new and innovative ways of tackling environmental problems. They are the next generation of engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs who are taking control of their own future by seeking solutions to climate change, pollution, biodiversity loss and over-consumption.

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