DIY Africa: Empowering a new Sierra Leone
November 14th, 2012
08:36 AM ET

DIY Africa: Empowering a new Sierra Leone

Editor's note: David Sengeh is a doctoral student working at MIT’s Media Lab.

By David Sengeh, Special to CNN

(CNN) - When Kelvin Doe, a then-13-year-old from Sierra Leone, saw that off-the-shelf batteries were too expensive for the inventions he was working on, he made his own at home. Kelvin did not have the privilege to do his project in a school environment. Rather, he was compelled to act by necessity and for the joy of solving practical problems. Kelvin combined acid, soda, and metal, dumped those ingredients in a tin cup, waited for the mixture to dry and wrapped tape around the cup to make his first battery. He failed several times before completing a final, working prototype. He hasn’t purchased a battery since.

Next up: A generator. Kelvin made one of those by hacking an old rusty voltage stabilizer he found in a dustbin. The generator’s motor, plug, and other components are either homemade or picked from the garbage. In addition to providing electricity to his home, where neighbors come to charge their mobile phone batteries, the generator powers Kelvin’s homemade FM radio station, fully equipped with a custom music mixer, recycled CD player and antenna that allow his whole neighborhood to tune in. Now 16, Kelvin has expanded operations: he employs his friends as reporters and station managers, tasking them to interview spectators at local soccer games and keep the calendar of requests for his DJ services at parties and events. The average age of his crew is 12.

I am a doctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab working on developing the next generation of prosthetic sockets and wearable mechanical interfaces. I am motivated to do this work by the needs I have seen in my country, Sierra Leone, and elsewhere. At the MIT Media Lab, I have access to immense resources and expertise. But it has become apparent to me that when I take the prostheses back to Sierra Leone, the machines and technologies needed to maintain them will be left at my lab. And, as important, the recipients of the technology will not have participated in finding solutions to their problems nor shared in the joy of creation.

To create an interest in innovation - a key driver of national development - I recently launched a national high school innovation challenge, called Innovate Salone, in Sierra Leone through an international organization called Global Minimum. In March 2012, we asked students to invent solutions to problems that they saw in their daily lives. Six weeks later, 300 students submitted applications encompassing some of Sierra Leone’s toughest problems. Some of them proposed new ways of providing quality education via the radio. Others suggested new agricultural programs for their communities. Eight finalist teams received several types of assistance: $500 to develop a prototype for their ideas; access to a network of local and international mentors; an invitation to a 3-day immersive summer innovation camp; and an additional $1,000 if their initial prototypes were still considered feasible, innovative, and especially promising after the first phase of development. Kelvin and I crossed paths through the Innovate Salone program.

Kelvin, who, before this past summer’s innovation camp, had not left a 10-mile radius of his home, was at the 2012 World Maker Faire held in New York at the end of September. He was invited to participate in a “Meet the Young Makers” panel with four other amazing young makers from America. He is the youngest person in history to be invited to the “Visiting Practitioner’s Program” at MIT, and he presented his inventions to undergraduate students at Harvard College and MIT. Other people Kelvin got to interact with include technology visionaries like Nicholas Negroponte of MIT Media Lab and education leaders like President Drew Faust of Harvard University.

While Kelvin indeed has special talents, he is not the only young person in Sierra Leone ready to embrace opportunities like this. Since the launch of Innovate Salone, I have encountered young boys and girls who are pursuing their dreams. One girl has started boiling leaves because she wants to launch a fragrance company. Another young man, who has taken classes on MIT Open Courseware, is making huge strides in creating a robot in his house.

As a Sierra Leonean who was given an opportunity to pursue biomedical engineering at Harvard and now a Ph.D. at MIT, I understand that a basic set of tools and a supporting platform are needed to transform good ideas into projects that impact an entire community. Innovate Salone is hoping to make those tools and that support widely available. The youth of Sierra Leone are ready and capable of transforming their country. By providing them with resources and creative freedom, we can spark the joy of discovery that results in innovation and ultimately, national development.

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Filed under: Design • Education • entrepreneurs • Future • Innovation • Robots • Social change • The Next List • World
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  60. mkulaji

    Nice piece and great to see bright African kids getting the support they need. Problem is, for everyone of these that gets limelight and support there are probably dozens of others who languish and never get the support they need. That is one thing we are trying to change with AfriTech. See this:

    April 23, 2013 at 9:33 pm | Reply
  61. Deloris Hagmaier

    I appreciate reading your blog.
    I encourage you continue writing.
    I agree with you on most points.
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  62. pofone

    Awesome work! At 13? We have some amazing people looking to improve lives with such passion.

    February 8, 2013 at 2:59 pm | Reply
  63. frikalture

    Big up Sengeh & Kevin...true giants from the land of the lions. You are inspiring alotta people. Just watch us raise up wi continent. "we all mek am"

    December 18, 2012 at 5:27 am | Reply
  64. Komurdzhi Mustafa

    really motivating video? it is very hard job, doing work kinda this!! Keep going? and you will be famous one day i hope! Hope to hear about u later)

    November 24, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Reply
  65. D. Beers

    How wonderful to see a kid overcome poverty by using his own Ingenuity with what materials he has around to improve his own life. Not dependent on the government to hand out their survival needs. This ingenuity is what made America strong and now we are losing it. Why? The government will give it to me.

    November 23, 2012 at 10:22 am | Reply

    I was proud to watch you young man. It gives me hope for Sierra Leone if we have such investigative and enquiring mind young people who can create mechanism that has the potential to become a marketable and useful product worldwide. Well done Kevin because for your hard work and intuitive mind.
    We need more young people to be encouraged and motivated like you so we can bring Sierra Leone into the 21st century. Keep up the good work

    November 22, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Reply
  67. Umbeke Davies

    This truly warms my heart. We should celebrate out youths. They are our gifts from God. We are all born with talents. How we use them that's another story. There is a reason why Kelvin was born in Sierra Leone in order to use his great mind to make a contribution to humanity. How many of us use our minds for something positive. Does anyone know how I can contact Kelvin directly? Being a female technical professional also from Sierra Leone, we can do some great things for Sierra Leone. God bless you Kelvin. Keep up the great work.

    November 16, 2012 at 11:13 am | Reply
    • dsengeh

      If you send an email to innovate[at], you can get in touch with Kelvin and the rest of the youth doing the innovation work. Thanks

      November 16, 2012 at 12:02 pm | Reply
  68. funny man

    Was the liitle butt dumpling that invented jenkUm?

    November 15, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Reply
  69. LoveIt

    Hi Kevin,

    Can you find me a job, please?


    November 15, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Reply
  70. George Sankoh

    Dr.David Sengeh:
    I an honored to be able to call you Doctor Sengeh. Venture to imagine this. Half of the "Dr.Kings and Dr. Kamara's" in Africa are a replica of you, Dr.David Sengeh. The sleeping African Giant would have been awake by now.
    You see, I see education as a tool for the profit of mankind. In Africa, we see it as a tool to aggrandise ourselves at the expense of our poor folks.
    We attain empty accolades like a PHD in History that cannot even sustain our families in the western world. We run with it to Africa where we know a PHD means you are "top of the hill". We become leaders because "we khow better than the rest" when in reality we know nothing. We end up in leadership positions and quickly become looters of the national treasury - this explains why Africa is really not a Third World continent - but rather a 10th World continent.
    Learn what will feed you and the community around you - this is education - be practical.

    November 15, 2012 at 12:27 pm | Reply
    • Bravehart

      Without a doubt, your words are true. However, Education of all forms are importanant, not only in Sierra Leone but everywhere in Africa.

      November 15, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Reply
  71. AGeek

    Now, replace Sierra Leone with "Planet Earth" and you can see how much better our planet could become, if only we stop fighting each other and instead, use all that money to *help* each other.

    November 15, 2012 at 12:26 pm | Reply
  72. Name*Prince Caleb Thompson

    I'm so proud of you Kelvin. Thank you very much David Sengeh for your immense effort to transform our country into a new dimension of technology. I always say this; in Sierra Leone there are many guniuses but we don't know how to discover them. Keep the good work going bro!!!

    November 15, 2012 at 6:40 am | Reply
  73. GO_GOP

    Ah good and all, but one needs to remember USA is the greatest country in the world ever, and we became great with our foundation on the Christian principles. Let no one forget that.

    November 15, 2012 at 6:39 am | Reply
    • guest


      November 15, 2012 at 9:39 am | Reply
      • jack

        you didn't get the memo on sarcasm, did you?

        November 15, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  74. Albert Patrick Sankoh


    November 15, 2012 at 3:55 am | Reply
  75. S Houk

    Travelled to SL a few years ago. Amazed by the resiliency of the kids there. Amazed that Kelvin has truly made something from nothing and I hope it takes him all the way!

    November 15, 2012 at 3:05 am | Reply
  76. Netia McCray

    So sad that I couldn't have met Kelvin in person but I feel that you did this up and coming innovator justice. #NERDPRIDE

    November 14, 2012 at 11:31 pm | Reply
  77. Michael

    God bless you! Keep up the learning, teaching and good work you are doing you are the future of our world!

    November 14, 2012 at 11:20 pm | Reply
  78. beachthumb

    @ Lostin SLC I used to take my kids on mission trips to Mexico just to see what other kids DIDN'T have and what they (my kids) should be VERY thankful for... as well as to help those families have just a little bit more (emphasis on 'little'). It's really too bad we can't take every – well almost every – kid in the US and EU, drop them for a week in a place like this and see how their mindset changes.
    @ Jon C. Wilson !Geeks Rule!

    November 14, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Reply
    • Jon C. Wilson

      Yes, they do. I am a geek myself, but cha' got to respect the nerds.

      November 14, 2012 at 6:17 pm | Reply
  79. Bnode

    Peolple like this young man are the future and it is always wise to invest in the future.

    November 14, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Reply
    • Jorge

      You really make it seem detniifely simple together with your presentation but I in discovering this subject to be truly one thing which I believe I'd in no way comprehend. It appears too complex and incredibly vast for me. I am searching ahead for your subsequent post, I will attempt to get the hold of it!

      January 13, 2013 at 6:33 am | Reply
  80. Clark Green

    That's awesome! I'm so inspired to see young gifted kids solving problems beyond most adults comprehension. Keep up the good work Kevin! May God keep you safe!

    November 14, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Reply
  81. spyroo

    ive learned how to fix airconditoner electronic panels out of nececity when they where 200 dls a piece and the place i worked wouldnt buy them and had a few residents on the place i did maintenence the fear of loosing my job made me push my self and learned how to fixthem i know how it feelsto beagainst the wall andthe only way is to go forward i hope this kid gets helped so hecan develope his full potential

    November 14, 2012 at 12:48 pm | Reply
  82. sharif

    ...if only there was a way to buy a black guy to do work for me....think.....think.....think

    November 14, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Reply
    • sharif

      hey – thats not me – someone posted that as me – how did that happen?

      November 14, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Reply
      • sharif

        anyone can post as Sharif ya big ole silly! look...ITS EASY!!

        November 14, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
      • sharif

        I hate them!

        November 14, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
      • sharif

        See, I'm Sharif now....hahahaha

        November 23, 2012 at 12:09 am |
  83. sharif

    wonder if there is a fund or a way to send some $$$ to this dude. So the can further develop his skills. I can waste cash on iphones, tablets. so why not invest on him

    November 14, 2012 at 12:41 pm | Reply
    • dsengeh

      Thanks. Actually, there is a way. If you click the link to this site you could make a donation to the group that does these challenges and works with Kelvin

      November 14, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Reply
  84. JK

    My son just did a report on Sierra Leone for his class. Had I seen this before the weekend, we would've definitely included it in the project. Awesome work!

    November 14, 2012 at 12:33 pm | Reply
  85. bibleverse1

    I love to read positive news stories.

    November 14, 2012 at 12:32 pm | Reply
  86. mike johnson

    ... Uncle Sam ... make sure to give this dude a green card so he can stay after graduating.

    November 14, 2012 at 12:30 pm | Reply
  87. phyllis m

    Not only is he handsome and smart and a brilliant head for all of these things..i really and truly hopes he get to fulfill all his dreams and be up there as the inventor that he is to his people and country..well done young man !!

    November 14, 2012 at 12:00 pm | Reply
  88. lib


    November 14, 2012 at 11:48 am | Reply
  89. Jon C. Wilson

    Forgot to add, glad there is one less to send me emails about their being a long lost prince or something

    November 14, 2012 at 11:46 am | Reply
    • BunsenHoneydew

      That's all that comes to your mind to say, huh?

      November 14, 2012 at 12:08 pm | Reply
    • John Stud

      Don't volunteer your ignorance.

      November 14, 2012 at 12:24 pm | Reply
    • kws

      disgusting trashy mind you inhabit

      November 14, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Reply
    • ricketyrocket

      Sociopathic tendencies. Not that you care (obviously).

      November 14, 2012 at 12:50 pm | Reply
    • Jon C. Wilson

      I don't know who this twit above is, but this is not apart of my original comment praising the young man for his inventiveness.

      November 14, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Reply
  90. Moe

    I don't expect less from a true Sierra Leonean. i am so proud of you.

    November 14, 2012 at 11:40 am | Reply
  91. N. C

    Good Job Kelvin!!! Keep up the great work. As a Sierra Leonean this made my day!!!

    November 14, 2012 at 11:12 am | Reply
  92. logicalgirl

    Wonderful!! Great job by a very smart young man. Kevin- you keep up the good work!

    November 14, 2012 at 11:11 am | Reply
  93. Chester

    This is pretty good and all, but shouldn't he be out finding diamonds?

    November 14, 2012 at 11:10 am | Reply
    • Franco


      November 14, 2012 at 11:16 am | Reply
    • Moses


      November 14, 2012 at 12:26 pm | Reply
  94. Prajjwal Bista

    Two thumbs up to you David and Kelvin. I am all smiles.

    November 14, 2012 at 11:07 am | Reply
  95. Shanida Johnson

    Keep doing what you do and keep up the good hard work, you can really make a difference in the world. Hats off to you.

    November 14, 2012 at 11:02 am | Reply
  96. LostinSLC

    You know kids here in the States and EU cry over not having their IPod or game system working properly and this kid is making due with rudimentary tools available to him to eek out a life most of us would be mortified to live in. I salute his heroism in making life happen for himself and his neighbors.

    November 14, 2012 at 10:57 am | Reply
  97. Jon C. Wilson

    Nice. Keep up the good work brother. Geeks and nerds forever.

    November 14, 2012 at 10:24 am | Reply

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