Jeremiah Thoronka, is an award-winning energy, environment, sustainability, and development innovator, researcher, and scholar.
The young Sierra Leonean was awarded the inaugural Chegg.org Global Student Prize and the Commonwealth Youth Awards for Excellence in Development Work in 2021.
The award was for his commendable actions in designing an innovative piezoelectric device that generates renewable energy using heat and vibrations from pedestrians and traffic when placed under busy roads.
He also won the Global Teacher Prize, an award granted to one student who has had a major impact on learning, their contemporaries’ lives, and society at large.
Jeremiah Thoronka has not only demonstrated exemplary academic excellence, but he’s also innovating clean energy systems, promoting locally sustainable solutions, and encouraging youth involvement in energy, climate change, and policy.
As a Commonwealth Shared Scholar, he is now doing an MSc in Sustainability, Energy, and Development at Durham University.
The early days
Jeremiah Thoronka was born into Sierra Leone’s civil war chaos and was raised in a refugee camp by his single mother.
His community’s only energy sources were firewood and coal, which cause photochemical haze, a painful irritation of the respiratory system that reduces lung function and makes breathing difficult.
Thoronka’s young classmates also fell behind in their education due to a lack of adequate lighting. These setbacks fueled his passion for renewable energy and inspired him to advocate for it.
In Sierra Leone, energy poverty is a big problem, with only 26% of the population having access to power, and it is particularly severe in rural regions.
People chopping down trees for firewood has resulted in forest devastation, leaving Sierra Leone exposed to catastrophic events such as flooding and landslides.
“The future is green if we start realising and financing Africa’s energy revolution. I grew up not knowing the importance of energy, the lack of electricity in my town meant that we could only prepare food using firewood or charcoal,” he says.
“The process of getting firewood made all of us children very sad. As a child, it was my first duty to help my mother gather firewood and bring it home from the bush. I grew up in a country where over 89% of the population is suffering from energy deficiency.”
The Optim Energy
At 17 and as a student at Rwanda’s African Leadership University, Jeremiah Thoronka founded Optim Energy, a start-up that converts vibrations from vehicles and pedestrian footfall on roadways into an electric current.
It differs from other renewable energy sources, such as wind or solar, in that it creates electricity without depending on the weather.
At the same time, there is no requirement for a battery or an electrical connection to an external power source.
He explains, “as a young energy enthusiast, I wanted to bring a sustainable energy system that can stop the overuse of natural resources.”
“Optim Energy does have the potential to help thousands and even millions of patients who die around Africa”
In Thoronka’s neighbourhood, Makawao in northern Sierra Leone, and Kuntoluh east of Freetown, Optim Energy performed a successful pilot test.
With just two devices, the start-up was able to deliver free electricity to 150 residences with a total population of roughly 1,500 people and 15 schools with a total enrollment of over 9,000 children.
His ambitions are to lower greenhouse gases, educate people about climate change and build a sustainable energy sector in Sierra Leone.
Jeremiah Thoronka is currently working on plans to grow into the healthcare sector, which requires electricity to refrigerate medicines and vaccinations and enough light to treat patients after dark.
Jeremiah has written articles about climate change, global warming, policy development, youth participation, entrepreneurship, and renewable funding.
At some of the world’s major youth gatherings, such as the World Youth Forum and IRENA Innovation Week, he has presented research papers and organised workshops.
He has also volunteered to teach street children, assisting 90 per cent of them in passing the National Primary School Examination.
He worked with the Agahozo Adolescents Village during his stay in Rwanda, a nonprofit dedicated to giving vulnerable and orphaned youth the education and leadership skills they need to transform their communities.
Awards and Achievements
Thoronka is a United Nations Academic Impact Millennium Fellow. Optim Energy was named the most innovative energy start-up in 2020 by the United Nations Major Group on Children and Youth (UNMGCY) and the Youth Constituency of the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7.
Thoronka’s excellence awards also include the African Leadership Academic Excellence Award, the African Leadership University Innovative Thinker/Entrepreneur 2020, the Sierra Leone Academic Excellence Award 2009, and Best Student at Saint Edward’s Secondary School for seven years.
In 2021, he was named to the World Wildlife Fund’s Top 100 Young African Conservation Leaders and got the Commonwealth Youth Award for Excellence in Development in the same year.
Hollywood actor and ‘X-men’ star Hugh Jackman announced Jeremiah as the winner of the Chegg.org Global Student Prize 2021, which he won from getting selected from over 3,500 nominations from 94 countries.
He won the top prize of $100,000, which he plans to put toward furthering his innovation.
Sierra Leone’s energy consumption has increased by 65 per cent since the early 2000s, but the country’s energy systems are still underdeveloped and unable to meet demand over 89 per cent of the population lives without electricity, and about 96 per cent cooks with conventional solid biomass.
Jeremiah Thoronka is determined to change this narrative. He plans to use the cash prize to lift more rural residents out of energy poverty, produce environmentally friendly energy, and usher in a new era of responsible consumerism.