Jeremiah Thoronka, a student from Sierra Leone, who invented a device that uses kinetic energy from traffic and pedestrians to generate clean power, has been named the winner of the Chegg.org Global Student Prize 2021. Jeremiah is the first winner of this new $100,000 sister award to the Global Teacher Prize which is given to one exceptional student who has made a real impact on learning, the lives of their peers and on society beyond.
Jeremiah's win was announced on the 10th November 2021 from the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, France
Jeremiah Thoronka was born amid the fighting of the Sierra Leone civil war and grew up with his single mother in a slum camp for displaced people on the outskirts of the capital Freetown, having to burn charcoal and wood for lighting and heating. Jeremiah saw with his own eyes how, in addition to the photochemical smog making respiratory problems commonplace, his young contemporaries fell behind in their schoolwork because of a lack of decent lighting.
Energy poverty is a major issue in Sierra Leonne – with just 26% of the population having access to electricity. In rural parts of the country, only 6% of people have electricity access, with most turning to solar lanterns and dry-cell batteries. As a result, it’s led to the destruction of forests as people chop down trees for firewood, which leaves Sierra Leone highly vulnerable to extreme events like flooding and landslides. Families' reliance on firewood and cheap kerosene generators also lead to frequent house fires.
These life-threatening disadvantages and hardships fuelled Jeremiah’s passion for renewable energy and climate change advocacy. At 17, when studying at the African Leadership University in Rwanda, he launched a start-up called Optim Energy that transforms vibrations from vehicles and pedestrian footfall on roads into an electric current. It is different from established renewable energy sources including wind or solar because it generates power without relying on changeable weather. At the same time, no battery and no electricity connection to an external power source is needed.
Optim Energy ran a successful pilot program in Jeremiah’s neighbourhoods, Makawo in the northern part of Sierra Leone and Kuntoluh east of Freetown. With just two devices, the start-up provided free electricity to 150 households comprising around 1,500 citizens, as well as 15 schools where more than 9,000 students attend.
Jeremiah is currently developing plans to expand into the healthcare sector, which needs power to chill medicines and vaccines and create sufficient light for treating patients after dark.
Jeremiah is a United Nations Academic Impact Millennium Fellow and Optim Energy was voted the most Innovative Energy Start-up 2020 by United Nations Major Group on Children and Youth (UNMGCY), and the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7 Youth Constituency. Jeremiah is also one of the World Wildlife Fund’s top 100 Young African Conservation Leaders. Should he win the Global Student Prize, Jeremiah will use the prize money to expand Optim Energy to reach 100,000 people by 2030.