A student from who invented a device that uses kinetic energy from traffic and pedestrians to generate clean power has been named the winner of the 2021. The student becomes the first winner of this new $100,000 (Ksh10 million) award, 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 Thoronka, the 21-year-old student from Freetown, Sierra Leone, was selected from more than 3,500 nominations and applications from 94 countries around the world. Actor and humanitarian Hugh Jackman announced Jeremiah as the winner of the inaugural Chegg.org Global Student Prize in a virtual ceremony broadcast from UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris.
The UK-based Varkey Foundation launched the Chegg.org Global Student Prize earlier this year, a sister award to its $1 million (Ksh100 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.
This is the organisation that awarded Kenyan teacher Peter Tabichi US$1 million (Ksh100 million) Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize 2019. This year saw US teacher Keishia Thorpe named as the winner of the Global Teacher Prize 2021.
Global Student Prize is open to all students who are at least 16 years old and enrolled in an academic institution or training and skills program. Part time students as well as students enrolled in online courses are also eligible for the prize.
Jeremiah Thoronka was born amid the f******g of the Sierra Leone civil w*r 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 f***s.
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. Jeremiah will use the prize money to expand Optim Energy to reach 100,000 people by 2030.
The other top 10 finalists for the Global Student Prize 2021 were Amisa Rashid from Kenya, Ana Julia Monteiro de Carvalho from Brazil, Kehkashan Basu from Canada, Lamya B**t from the UAE, Elliott Lancaster from the UK, Matine Khalighi from the US, Mirko Cazzato from Italy, Oluwadamilola Akintewe from Nigeria and Seema Kumari from India.
Actor and humanitarian Hugh Jackman said: “Students everywhere are f******g for their very future. They are part of a generation that are on the frontline of the greatest challenges of our time – from climate change to global inequality. So, we must listen to their voices and shine a light on their stories.