US$100,000: ‘Surround yourself with people who uplift you’

Jeremiah Thoronka, 21, a student from Sierra Leone, is the first winner of the new US$100,000 Global Student Prize.

Thoronka invented a device that uses kinetic energy from traffic and pedestrians to generate clean power. The award is given to an exceptional student who has made a real impact on learning, the lives of their peers, and society. He was selected from over 3,500 nominations and applications from 94 countries around the world.

Hugh Jackman, actor, and humanitarian, announced Thoronka as the winner during a virtual ceremony broadcast from UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris on 10 November 2021.

The Varkey Foundation launched the Global Student Prize earlier this year, a sister award to its $1 million Global Teacher Prize, to create a powerful new platform that shines a light on the efforts of extraordinary students everywhere who, together, are reshaping our world for the better.

All students who are at least 16 years old and enrolled in an academic institution or training and skills programme, part-time students, as well as students enrolled in online courses, are eligible for the prize.

At 17, while studying at the African Leadership University in Rwanda, Thoronka launched a start-up called Optim Energy that transforms vibrations from vehicles and pedestrian footfall on roads into an electric current.

It is different from established renewable energy sources, including wind or solar, because it generates power without relying on weather changes. At the same time, no battery and no electricity connection to an external power source is needed.

Optim Energy ran a successful pilot program in Thoronka’s neighbourhood of Makawo in the northern part of Sierra Leone and Kuntoluh, east of Freetown. With just two devices, the start-up provided free electricity to 150 households comprising around 1,500 citizens, as well as 15 schools attended by more than 9,000 students.

Thoronka is now developing plans to expand into the healthcare sector, which needs power to keep drugs and vaccines cold and create sufficient light for treating patients after dark.

He is a United Nations Academic Impact Millennium Fellow and Optim Energy was voted the most Innovative Energy Start-up 2020 by the United Nations Major Group on Children and Youth, and the Sustainable Development Goal 7 Youth Constituency. Thoronka is also one of the World Wildlife Fund’s top 100 Young African Conservation Leaders. He will use the prize money to expand Optim Energy to reach 100,000 people by 2030.

Thoronka, currently a masters student in sustainability, energy and development at Durham University in the United Kingdom, spoke to University World News about education and life.

UWN: What message about education do you have for young people in your country?

JT: Education is not just about getting excellent grades. It is about obtaining skills that you can apply to your life and career.

UWN: What do you know now about higher education now that you wished you had known earlier?

JT: It is so important when thinking about higher education to imagine how you will apply what you are learning in future, and how the skills you are gaining at university will help you advance in your career and your life.

UWN: What do you think young people need to make smart career choices?

JT: Counselling and mentorship are very important. Young people need real-life examples of where their education could take them. They need role models to look up to, and people they can go to for guidance and advice. We all have much to learn from each other, so it’s important to share our knowledge and experiences.

UWN: What is the biggest challenge you faced?

JT: Growing up in a slum on the outskirts of Freetown, we had frequent power cuts that made it difficult for me to study at night and complete my schoolwork. These hardships fuelled my passion for renewable energy and sustainability, and inspired me to create Optim Energy. I hope to expand Optim Energy to even more households and schools, so that no child faces the same energy challenges I did.

UWN: What was the biggest triumph in your academic life?

JT: My most rewarding experiences have been collaborating and exchanging ideas with my peers. For example, my classmates and I started the ‘May Park Scientists’, named after our school’s playground, and together we developed a mini windmill that helped produce electricity for 50 high school students.

What I most enjoyed from applying for the Global Student Prize was getting to meet so many creative changemakers from all around the world. It has filled me with hope to see so many young people working hard to come up with innovative solutions to the world’s biggest problems, and I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to and the Varkey Foundation for connecting me to such inspiring people.

NWU: Who has been the most influential person in your academic career?

JT: Wilmot Johnson Cole, who was the principal of my junior school, who pushed me to think creatively about how to overcome hardships. He was one of the first people who pushed me to turn my ideas about generating renewable energy into a reality. I will be forever grateful for his encouragement.

UWN: What would you like to see happen in the higher education sector in your country to build a culture of excellence?

JT: It is important for education systems everywhere to encourage creativity and foster the 21st century skills that people can apply in their lives.

UWN: What should universities do to help graduates to be more employable?

JT: As I said, I believe counselling and mentorship are key, so that graduates can get a clear idea of how they can apply the skills they have learnt to a fulfilling career. Universities should make sure graduates have access to these services. Beyond that, it is important for graduates to master critical thinking, and be able to communicate clearly on why their ideas are worthwhile.

UWN: What would you say to a student who wants to give up because of the challenges he/she faces?

JT: There are many before you who almost gave up, but who are now celebrating their success stories. Be ready to live up to the challenge and demonstrate your strength. I understand how you feel but surround yourself with people who always uplift you and push you to challenge yourself.

UWN: What is your motto in life (and learning)?

JT: Just do it, be innovative and creative. Failure does not define you, what matters is how you get up and respond to the challenge.