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Sierra Leone Teen Becomes MIT Media Lab's Youngest "Visiting Practitioner"

BY Lisa Goldman | Monday, December 3 2012

A video about a boy from Sierra Leone who creates innovative technology solutions with household goods and materials he sources from dumpsters has gone viral, with over 3.5 million views in two weeks.

Kelvin Doe, 16, figured out how to make his own batteries out of acid, soda, and metal when he was 13 years old. He also made a generator out of a cast-off voltage stabilizer and built the equipment to start a community FM radio station, which he runs with a team of friends who act as reporters and station managers (Doe goes by the name DJ Focus). He created these things out of necessity — because batteries were too expensive and his family home did not have access to regular electricity.

Recently Doe spent three weeks as the youngest-ever "visiting practitioner" at the MIT Innovation Lab, after he became a finalist in Innovate Salone, a contest that challenges the youth of Sierra Leone "...to design the solutions to complex problems in their local and national communities." He had never been more than 10 kilometers from his home before his remarkable trip to the United States, which is detailed here.

The initiative for the contest came from David Sengeh, a doctoral candidate at MIT who is from Sierra Leone. Sengeh wrote about the Kelvin and his vision for Innovate Salon in a blog post for CNN:

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.

For years, Senegh explained to techPresident, Sierra Leone was the recipient of huge amounts of humanitarian aid as it struggled to recover from a decade-long decade-long civil war that ended in 2002. But 10 years later the emerging democracy just held elections that were widely praised for being peaceful and well-organized. Now he wants to empower the country's youth to lead the way to self-sufficiency via innovation.

"Sierra Leone is now the most stable country in sub-Saharan Africa," said Senegh. "It is the perfect country to do things like Innovate Salone. It’s very small, it's stable and it's full of bright, innovative youth."

Innovate Salone is now crowd sourcing the funding to keep the initiative going, with $41,835 of the $100,000 goal raised as of this writing.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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