The news the world receives from the continent of Africa is almost uniformly bad, and this is certainly an unjust situation. A recent parody ad campaign by Norwegian Erik Schreiner Evans attempts to say as much; Evans’ Africa for Norway spoof intends to send the message to “stop treating Africans like passive recipients of aid, and recognize that the continent is more than the sum of its problems.” This message may have some effect on the tendency of major news and aid organizations to capitalize on the suffering of African people, but recent stories highlighting the ingenuity and self-sufficiency of African teenagers may do more to change perceptions. First, there is the story of four Nigerian teenagers who debuted their “urine-powered generator” at the 2012 “Maker Faire Africa” in Lagos, a story that made headlines in international news. Another prodigy, from Sierra Leone, has made a splash with his ability to turn garbage into useable technology. Fifteen-year-old Kelvin Doe—a.k.a. D.J. Focus—has wowed engineers by building his own batteries, generators, and transmitters with scrounged-up spare parts and youthful resourcefulness.
The above THINKR video profiles Kelvin, with interviews from engineers like MIT doctoral student David Sengeh, also from Sierra Leone, who has used his connections to help young people like Kelvin develop their talents for the benefit of their war-torn and impoverished country. Kelvin’s a pretty amazing young guy. He explains his alter-ego “D.J. Focus” as part of his personal ethos: “I believe if you focus, you can do an invention perfectly.” Kelvin hosts his own radio show, which provided the impetus for his tech innovations. Kelvin’s story struck a chord: the short video garnered over three-million views in just ten days.
A more recent episode of THINKR’s “Prodigies” series profiles Kelvin’s mentor, David Sengah, whose research focuses on designing comfortable prosthetic limbs, an interest he developed through his own experience of the ten-year Sierra Leone Civil War, during which rebel forces amputated limbs to intimidate their opposition.
Kelvin Doe and David Sengah are extraordinary inventors, but they are only two examples of a steady stream of African tech innovators, artists, writers, and entrepreneurs dedicated to changing their countries’ fates and thereby changing the official narrative of Africans as helpless victims.
Josh Jones is a doctoral candidate in English at Fordham University and a co-founder and former managing editor of Guernica / A Magazine of Arts and Politics.