Self-Taught African Teen Turns Trash into Electricity

Necessity can be the mother of invention as the case of 16-year-old Kelvin Doe amply illustrates. Using things he’d found in trash bins or around his house in Sierra Leone in western Africa, Doe started making batteries and generators when he was 13 years old. The generator not only provides electricity for his house — which otherwise would get power about once a week — and for his neighbors to charge their mobile phones, it also powers Doe’s own FM radio station, outfitted with a recycled CD player and antenna and a music mixer.

For his innovation and invention, Doe was invited to be part of a “Meet the Young Makers” panel at the 2012 World Maker Faire this past September. He has also become the youngest person ever to be part of the “Visiting Practioner’s Program” at M.I.T.; students at M.I.T. and Harvard, and the President of Harvard, have heard Doe talk about his inventions.

Doe’s ingenuity was discovered thanks to a program called Innovate Salone, a national “innovation challenge” for high school students in Sierra Leone sponsored by an international nonprofit, Global Minimum. Students were asked to devise solutions to problems in their everyday lives. 300 submitted applications; ideas included new agricultural programs and ways to provide quality education through the radio.

David Sengah, a Sierra Leonean who studied biomedical engineering at Harvard and is now pursuing a Ph.D. at M.I.T., helped put together Innovate Salone. At the M.I.T. Media Lab, he is developing the “next generation of prosthetic sockets and wearable mechanical interfaces.” His own experience of Sierra Leone’s needs has fueled his work. But it has also made him aware that, when he brings his prostheses to his country, it is crucial that people there be able to use and maintain them, without the technologies available at M.I.T.

In other words, technology is great and wondrous but its recipients need to be able to use it on their own, with the materials they have readily at hand.

Doe’s batteries — made by combining acid, soda and metal in a tin cup, letting the mixture dry and wrapping tape around the cup — exemplify this goal. He made a generator from a rusty voltage stabilizer found in the trash. These creations would be the stuff of science fair projects here in the U.S.; in Doe’s case, they have play a vital role in his community and not only by providing electricity. For his homemade FM station, Doe has friends (average age 12) serve as reporters and station managers, to interview soccer game spectators and keep a calendar of requests for his DJ services.

If you’re not impressed yet (not to mention inspired to see what you can make yourself!), you can listen to Doe in a video produced by’s THINKR YouTube channel.

As the completely self-taught young engineer says, “They call me DJ Focus because I believe if you focus, you can do an invention perfectly.” Doe says he plans to share what he’s learned at M.I.T. with his “friends, colleagues and loved ones” — and, let’s hope, the rest of the world. Great ideas and inventions like those of Kelvin Doe are something we can all learn and benefit from.

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Image from a screenshot of a video uploaded by thnkrtv

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Navpreet K.
Navpreet K.2 years ago

Very interesting!

Penny C.
Penny C.2 years ago

Awesome young guy!

Annmari Lundin
Annmari Lundin2 years ago

What a great and admiresome guy! I hope MIT and others will sponsor him and others to get more knowledge.

Christina B.
Christina B.2 years ago

What an inspiring young man! He is so humble, too. An example to everyone. Well done, Kelvin.

Nessie Benjamin
Nessie B.2 years ago

Thank you

Richard T.
Richard T.2 years ago

thank you!

Spirit Spider
Spirit Spider2 years ago

Wow, amazing :-)

Elizabeth O.
Elizabeth O.2 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Cynthia H.
Cynthia H.2 years ago

Using your time well, and applying yourself. You are a wonderful kid - a wonderful human being!

Alison A.
Alison A.2 years ago

Thanks for posting.