Self-Taught African Teenager Wows M.I.T. (and Other Innovators Changing Africa’s Fate)

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.

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  • Mary Gilson says:

    Dear David, Thanks for shar­ing this video on Kelvin Doe, an amaz­ing and inspir­ing sto­ry. I think the most impor­tant thing in real­iz­ing human poten­tial at any age is to give peo­ple free­dom to explore as well as expo­sure to mate­ri­als and resources that they can work with. Once infor­ma­tion on the inter­net gets orga­nized, hope­ful­ly that will hap­pen more and with greater effi­cien­cy, integri­ty and expanse. Best of luck to you, Kelvin, Sier­ra Leone and Africa. MG, West Bloom­field, Michi­gan

  • oyinz says:

    i am an african and i am proud of it.African may be black,poor,and eco­nom­i­cal­ly bad but that does make the poe­ple in it also the­same africa is one of the most blessed coun­try with intel­lec­tu­al­ly genius and awe­some­ly tal­ent­ed africa hold the future of the world in our hands and i can claim african has the great­est and out­stand­ing sien­tist and engi­neers and we are the upgrow­ing gen­er­a­tion of the world faith i am proud­ly AFRICANS and tru­ly NIGERIAN

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