Johannesburg - Jeremiah Thoronka wouldn’t change one thing about his past.
Despite growing up in the toughest of circumstances in a slum on the outskirts of Freetown, in Sierra Leone, the 21-year-old admits he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Thoronka, was born amid the fighting of the Sierra Leone civil war, and raised by his single mother.
“We moved from one place to another as I was growing up, and it was not easy growing up poor, living in a slum. I lived in a deprived area on the outskirts of Freetown, with problems related to energy and schooling,” he said.
While life was tough, Thoronka says he is grateful for the challenges he faced, as he wouldn’t be the success he is today if it wasn’t for his tough upbringing.
“My childhood shaped who I am today, and inspired me to do what I could to ensure that in the future, no child would have to struggle the way I did. The challenges and hardships I have faced have motivated me, and they continue to inspire me,” he said.
Thoronka was thrust into the spotlight this week, after he was announced as the first-ever winner of the $100 000 Chegg.org Global Student Prize 2021.
He won the prize for inventing a device that uses kinetic energy from traffic and pedestrians to generate clean power.
The award celebrates one exceptional student who has made a real impact on learning, the lives of their peers and on society beyond.
Thoronka was selected from over 3 500 nominations and applications from 94 countries around the world.
Actor and humanitarian Hugh Jackman announced Thoronka as the winner of the inaugural Chegg.org Global Student Prize as part of a virtual ceremony broadcast from UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris.
The Varkey Foundation launched the Chegg.org Global Student Prize earlier this year, a sister award to its $1 million Global Teacher Prize, to create a powerful new platform that shines a light on the efforts of extraordinary students everywhere who, together, are reshaping our world for the better.
Thoronka says he still finds himself in disbelief having beaten over 3 500 students from around the globe to the prize.
“It’s very exciting, it feels surreal. But the most important thing is that with this award, the world is now celebrating the efforts of students everywhere who are innovating and working to build a better future.
“This award has allowed my peers and me to connect, so that we can work together to find solutions to the world’s biggest problems,” he said.
Winning the inaugural competition was a complete shock, says Thoronka, as he didn’t even expect to be nominated.
“I was very surprised when I found out I had been nominated for the prize, and even more so when I was announced as the winner.
“This was a chance to tell my story, bring awareness to the energy challenges that we face in Sierra Leone, and be part of a global community of young change makers,” he said.
Thoronka says his childhood had sparked the idea of his invention.
“I saw how my friends and other young people in my community struggled with their school work because they didn’t have access to electricity. And, a lot of people were moving to urban areas, which pushed up the demand for energy.
“These personal experiences, as well as things I learnt in the classroom while studying engineering and environment, gave me the idea for Optim Energy. The device acts like a sponge, soaking in energy from people walking by, or from traffic.
“It is different from other renewable energy sources, like wind and solar, because it doesn’t rely on changeable weather to generate power. With just two devices, we were able to provide free electricity to 1 500 people across 150 households, and 15 schools where more than 9 000 students attend,” he said.
Developing such a ground-breaking innovation wasn’t easy.
“I pride myself on being steadfast and self-motivated, but there were times when I struggled. It wasn’t always easy to access the right resources but luckily I was able to surround myself with a team of dedicated volunteers, who helped me turn my vision into a reality.
“Whatever difficulties I faced, I remained focused on my goal, which was to create positive change in my community, and offer an innovative, scalable solution to my country’s energy problems,” he said.
He says his innovation will go a long way in helping his home country of Sierra Leone in their battle against energy poverty.
“Energy poverty is a major issue in Sierra Leone – with just 26% of the population having access to electricity. In rural parts of the country, only 6% of people have electricity access, with many 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.
“With urbanisation placing increasing pressure on energy systems, cities are struggling to keep up with demand. I hope my device can help boost energy supplies, in homes but also in schools and healthcare.”
Thoronka, who is a United Nations Academic Impact Millennium Fellow and is also one of the World Wildlife Fund’s top 100 Young African Conservation Leaders, added that his life-threatening disadvantages and hardships has fuelled his passion for renewable energy and climate change advocacy.
“I saw how the photochemical smog was causing respiratory problems for a lot of people in my community, and many of my classmates were falling behind in their school work because they didn’t have decent lighting. At the same time, I knew that climate change was a global problem that would be impossible to solve without everyone working together towards a solution.
“All this inspired me to work towards an energy secure future for Africa and beyond,” he said.He credits his success to his mother, who he says is his inspiration.
“She raised my brother and me on her own. She worked as a housekeeper while battling breast cancer. She often had to take out loans to make sure we had access to the basics. My mother and I had a very special bond, and although our house was small, it was full of love and always lively.
“My mother was one of my biggest inspirations. She was one of those people who are always positive, and always striving to improve their communities. She was so strong, and taught me to never give up. She would always say, ‘If you don’t like your situation, only you can change your destiny’, and these words have always stayed with me,” he said.
Thoronka has also spoken of his delight at chatting to global superstar Hugh Jackman.
“I couldn’t believe my ears when he announced me as the winner. But the best part for me was hearing Hugh Jackman acknowledge the work that so many young people are doing to build a better future. I am so grateful to him, and to Chegg.org and the Varkey Foundation, for helping to shine a light on the incredible achievements of young people everywhere,” he said.
He also has some parting words for African youth who have grown up in similar tough circumstances as he did.
“I would tell them to never give up, and surround themselves with people who uplift them. Hardships can be a powerful creative fuel to bring about positive change,” he said.
Thoronka says he plans on using the prize money to expand Optim Energy to reach 100 000 people by 2030, and 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.