Kelvin Doe was born to a single mother when Sierra Leone was being torn apart by civil war. “Her resilience and self-belief made it possible for me to be alive today,” he once said. Kelvin was six when the diamond-funded conflict, notorious for the systematic amputation of victims’ limbs, finally drew to a close.
Turning 17 this month, he is a personification of how the west African country is trying to rebuild and look forward. A short film about him has been viewed more than 5m times on YouTube.
Doe is a self-taught engineer of astonishing precocity. At the age of 11, he rummaged in dustbins for scrap electronics parts that could fix local problems. At 13 he made his own battery by throwing together acid, soda and metal in a tin cup, waiting for the mixture to dry and wrapping tape around it. This proved a big financial saving on batteries.
Frustrated by lack of a reliable electricity supply in his neighbourhood, Doe built a generator using parts that were home made or rescued from the rubbish. The generator also powered a community radio station that he built from recycled materials. He plays music under the name DJ Focus and employs his friends as journalists and station managers.
"They call me DJ Focus because I believe if you focus, you can do an invention perfectly," Doe said in the video on the Thnkr YouTube channel that proved a worldwide hit.
He had never been more than 10 miles from his home in Freetown until he won a national schools innovation competition and was picked last year for a trip to America, where he spoke at the Meet the Young Makers panel at the World Maker Faire in New York.
Doe became the youngest ever “visiting practitioner” with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) International Development Initiative. He presented his inventions to MIT students, took part in research and lectured to engineering students at Harvard College. He has been featured on CNN and NBC News and was a speaker at TEDxTeen.
His mentor David Sengeh, a PhD student at the MIT media lab, said: “The inspirational effects of the original Thinkr YouTube video have been remarkable. It has had a tremendous impact on Kelvin’s life, on my life and on millions of people all over the world everywhere. In Sierra Leone, other young people suddenly feel they can be like Kelvin.”