Kelvin Doe found that batteries were too expensive for a project he was working on in 2009. He used acid, soda, and metal parts that he found in trash bins in his neighborhood to build his own battery. Doe, then a 13-year-old from Sierra Leone, constructed a generator to light his home and operate an FM radio station that he built. He now employs his friends at the radio station.
Doe’s inventions caught the attention of David Sengeh, a doctoral candidate at MIT Media Lab. Doe participated in a solutions challenge Sengeh launched in 2012 asking “students to invent solutions to problems that they saw in their daily lives.”
Sengeh, also a Sierra Leonean, wanted to enable youth in developing countries to find solutions to local problems. Sengeh arranged for Doe, one of three winners, to become a resident practitioner at the MIT Media Lab.
This to me is a perfect example of youth not only finding solutions, against all the odds, but collaborating with each other as well.
Today, the world has the largest youth population in history. There are more than 1.2 billion young people between the ages of 15 and 24, and 90% of them live in developing countries like Sierra Leone. This is both an opportunity and a challenge. Nearly 75 million or 12.6% of youth are unemployed globally, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO). In the poorest regions of the world, youth mostly work in the informal sector, where they are paid less and have almost no opportunity to advance professionally.
A lack of immediate job prospects and financial security has spurred entrepreneurial drive in some young people to tackle their challenges. We have seen how innovative youths are combating corruption in South America or violence against women in South Asia.
At the World Bank, we engage with youth from more than 100 countries via social media, seminars, hackathons, and competitions. We know that youth care about environment, good governance, and opportunities. They view themselves as catalysts for positive socioeconomic change. The Arab Spring or protests in India to prevent violence against women are expressions of their power to demand or create change. They are also a productive asset for economic growth and job creation.
Three-quarters of the planet’s population has access to a mobile phone. Youth are the pioneers of mobile technology. They are the inventors and consumers of this connected world. Naturally, they are realizing their potential to solve problems, hold their governments accountable, and shape the world they want to live in.
Today young people have different aspirations than previous generations. They define success not in terms of material wealth, but in their ability to access resources easily for themselves and for their peers. They are sharing knowledge via online classes and social media. They are working toward a more tolerant, sustainable, and fair society.
It is instructive to return briefly to how Doe created batteries from trash. And how Sengeh helped Doe, who had never previously traveled more than 10 miles from his hometown, come to MIT to learn and share his story. Doe created batteries because his neighborhood didn’t usually have electricity. He also allowed his neighbors to use his homemade generator to charge their mobile phones. Sengeh, a survivor of civil war, found out about Doe because he wanted to help youth in his country. They met because of their shared hope to help themselves and Sierra Leone.
It is the very shift in values and access to technology that is empowering millions of youth like Doe and Sengeh to overcome present challenges. The idea of success is changing as youths work tirelessly for their collective future. Young people are bound to invent a brighter future!