Self-Taught Teen Prodigy From Sierra Leone Wows MIT Engineers [VIDEO]

Monday, November 19, 2012 |

 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.

The 13-year-old is a self-taught engineer, who has never taken an engineering or electronics class. Combining scrap metal, baking soda and acid, he created a battery to power his family’s home. He also broadcasts news and music as DJ Focus on the radio, using an RF transmitter he created.

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.

Kelvin is the youngest invitee ever to MIT’s Visiting Practitioner’s Program for international development– and watching THNKR’s look into his trip you’ll understand why. The teen scours trash bins for spare parts, which he uses to build batteries, generators and transmitters.

Mention Africa and many of us westerners immediately conjure up images of war, famine, and genocide. But Sierra Leone’s 16-year-old Kelvin Doe is conjuring up something something altogether different.

Kelvin, AKA DJ Focus, helped create a DIY youth radio station made from discarded consumer electronics salvaged from local garbage bins. He designed his own generator to power the station’s amplifier and other components. The station’s 12-volt generator is made from a home-made battery which in turn is  charged by broken DVD players. In his spare time, Kelvin DJs at kids’ birthday parties.

Kelvin is coming to Maker Faire New York from Africa to participate in the “Meet the Young Makers” panel discussion Sunday, Sept. 30, at noon. If you want to renew your faith in humanity and the young maker spirit this is the event for you.

Kelvin is one of the finalists in the inaugural Innovate Salone 2012 high school invention challenge in Sierra Leone organized by Global Minimum. He presented his work on Maker Camp this past summer. In addition to his appearance at Maker Faire,  Kelvin will also be a resident practitioner with the MIT International Development Initiative. And, oh yeah. He will also be a guest presenter at Harvard School of Engineering.

Global Minimum’s mission is to “nurture and harvest the creative and innovative minds of Sierra Leoneans through design and implementation.”  Innovate Salone is dedicated to improving the quality of life in Sierra Leone through “the collaborative integration of scientific, socio-cultural, technological and entrepreneurial innovations.”

Given what Kelvin has accomplished, it sounds like Global Minimum and Innovate Salone are succeeding.

MIT doctoral student and fellow Sierra Leone-native David Senegh recognized Kelvin’s talents when the two met through Senegh’s non-profit Innovate Salone, which supports high school students looking to solve the country’s toughest challenges. You can support Kelvin and Innovate Salone by donating to its Crowdrise campaign.