African Teen Invents With Scrap Metal, Visits MIT and Harvard

16-year-old creates electronic decivces catching the eye of MIT and Harvard

December 4, 2012, 3:01 PM

Dec. 5, 2012 — -- He's made a transistor radio, powered his community's FM youth radio station with homemade batteries, and, most recently, built a larger studio generator — all by using materials he found in the trash.

At the age of 16, Kelvin Doe, also known as DJ Focus, has been called a prodigy and a genius. He's the most prolific inventor in his West African village of Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Doe is the youngest of five children and says he's been inventing gadgets since the age of four. He gathers scrap metal and other materials to create electronic solutions for his town. His inventions have caught the eye of university professors and scientists at academic institutions in the U.S., including Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard.

"The exceptional thing about Kelvin is he's a very poor kid with very little infrastructure. He's been able to harvest that talent with virtually nothing," said Laura Sampath, manager of MIT's International Development Initiative. "He takes apart and then learns by what he's seeing and can rebuild it, often better than what he's seen in the first place."

Earlier this year, Doe entered his inventions into the first ever Innovate Salone Challenge — a competition funded and run by Global Minimum Inc., a nonprofit organization founded by David Sengeh and his colleagues during his freshman year at Harvard.

"Innovate Salone is based on the idea that young people can create solutions to problems they experience," said Sengeh. "By doing this, they learn through making, they are doers and makers and not merely receivers. They participate in the culture of making, form a network with other makers, and experience the joy of creating."

The mission behind Global Minimum, or GMin, is to give young inventors the tools, mentorship and platform in which to carry out their ideas. The Innovate Salone Challenge seeks those ideas in the areas of agriculture, education and energy, to name a few. Teams of three present an idea. Winning ideas are then awarded $1,500 to make their ideas become reality.

Sengeh's organization put out a call for applications in March. When the process closed in May, Sengeh and his team had 70 applications from 300 students, trying to solve some of Sierra Leone's most challenging issues.

Doe's project was to create local FM radio stations. He saw how steep the start-up costs are for local radio stations. Many living in remote areas are not able to get the news and information they need without radio.

Doe, along with two other students from Sierra Leone's Albert Academy, came together to build a prototype station. Sengeh says Doe's application stood out because of his speed in implementing his idea.

"Kelvin had already built prototypes, thus his application was much stronger than others who were still only at the idea stage," said Sengeh. "He had been making different things and his project seemed definitely feasible, and it had already demonstrated its community impact."

Sengeh knows firsthand the challenges many face in Sierra Leone, having grown up under many of the same conditions as Doe. After being named a top student in Sierra Leone, Sengeh was able to study at Harvard, and is now earning his doctorate from MIT. Sengeh says he created GMin to give back in the same way others before him gave.

The Innovate Salone competition was modeled after the MIT Ideas Challenge, where applicants are encouraged to present and develop ideas that will change the world.

"In my life, I am very grateful to all my mentors," said Sengeh. "I just wanted to share with the young innovators what I was exposed to. I knew they would learn a lot even within a short period of time."

Winning teams are paired with local mentors within their community, as well as professionals in the fields of chemistry, physics and bioengineering.

Sampath is part of the Visiting Practitioners Program at MIT's International Development Initiative. She heard about Doe's inventions through Sengeh.

"It's the first time a 15-year-old has gone through the MIT Visiting Practitioners Program," said Sampath. "That program brings in mid-career professionals. Fifteen years old is not the average age of people who are visiting practitioners. There's never been anyone even twice his age admitted."

Doe describes himself as a self-taught inventor who looks at an object, breaks it apart and then rebuilds it completely. He's built his own amplifiers and repurposed audio speakers.

"Kelvin doesn't own a screwdriver," said Sampath. "He is a prodigy."

Freetown, Sierra Leone

Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, is home to one million people. In Doe's community, there are few resources.

"It is not one of the wealthier areas so the challenges are the same across these communities," said Sengeh.

Sierra Leone sits on the western coast of Africa is home to over five million people.

From West Africa to the Western World

When Doe and his teammates were selected as finalists, they were invited to travel to the U.S. in September. They took part in the Maker Fare, a festival for inventors in New York City, and spent time meeting students and professors at MIT and Harvard. The three-week trip was made possible through partnerships with Africell Sierra Leone, Make Inc., and MIT.

This was the first time Doe left Freetown to travel to the United States. Many helped make Doe's visit comfortable, including hosts like Kate Krontiris, who works for — an organization at the Maker Faire.

"He was tremendously focused on his inventions, improving them and making them do different things," said Krontiris, panel member for the Maker Faire. "He's also sort of a regular person who came to the US for the first time. I think it was exciting and a bit overwhelming."

Despite the culture shock, Doe's mentor in Sierra Leone, Francis Koromah, said he could see how the experience in the states affected the young inventor.

"When Kelvin came back from the U.S. it was wonderful for us," said Koromah. "His interaction just transformed him into something. It's a massive difference — a big change and it's wonderful."

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