Inspiring

09.26.13

Why the Clintons Love Sierra Leone’s Boy Genius

At 16, Kelvin Doe has a presidential medal, an MIT fellowship, and the admiration of world leaders—not bad for a self-taught inventor from Freetown.

Kelvin Doe was standing just a few feet away from President Clinton, Secretary Clinton and Chelsea—not to mention a ballroom full of business and political leaders—at the Clinton Global Initiative's closing plenary on Thursday, but—he assured The Daily Beast in an interview—he wasn't nervous.

The 16-year-old inventor from Sierra Leone has the chops to back up his confidence: the boy genius is both the youngest person to be awarded his country's presidential medal, and the youngest person ever offered a fellowship at MIT, where he spent a week as a visiting practitioner training MIT and Harvard undergrads. He traveled 14 hours from Sierra Leone to attend the CGI conference this week. Clad in a pinstripe suit and adorned with his medal, he met up with The Daily Beast to talk about his accomplishments, fresh off of taking a photo with former President Bill Clinton.

Introduced by Chelsea Clinton as “nothing but a repudiation of the status quo,” Doe was shy one-on-one, but came alive in front of the plenary. “Chelsea, I would like to ask a question,” he said with a wide smile. “Do I look good in a suit?”

In middle school, the young boy would scavenge nearby trash yards in the capital of Freetown to find parts for his inventions. “I'd go to bed, then wake up after midnight,” he told the audience with a laugh. “My mom would wake up most nights to see our living room transformed into a small electronic junkyard.” Doe had no formal engineering training, but he tinkered endlessly. “I just figured things out, just picked things and took them home and made things on my own,” he told The Daily Beast. “Sometimes it can take me a week, sometimes a month, but I just believe I can do it so I just keep on doing.”

He first built small generators to solve what he views as his country's most pressing scarcity: electricity. “There was a problem affecting my community and I wanted to do something about it which was lack of transferred information from one community to another,” he said. “I decided to build a station for the people to be able to use to talk about issues, also educate people.” After working as a radio engineer for his friends and neighbors, he'd pieced together enough skill and equipment to begin a radio station where he broadcast under the name DJ Focus. His inventive spirit only came under the spotlight when, just last year at age 15, he was discovered by a Sierra Leonean Ph.D. student at MIT during a high school innovation challenge.

Now he and two friend DJ the 24-hour station and raise funds to power it with advertisements. People around the city know and recognize him and call him by his on-air name, DJ Focus.

In middle school, the young boy would scavenge nearby trash yards in the capital of Freetown to find parts for his inventions.

So what's next for the inventor who's already scored a scholarship to study at MIT? He's been working with Canadian provider Sierra Wifi to build solar panels and transmitters in all 400-odd schools and universities in Sierra Leone to power computers and bring Internet access to remote regions, all made possible by a $100,000 grant. Up next: a windmill prototype, which is a few months from being finished. “There are so many more problems I'd like to solve, how can human energy contribute to electricity.”

In the week Doe spent at MIT, he enjoyed teaching students at least two years older than himself. “It's fun for me,” he said. “Also it's part of learning, those people are inspirational people. For me, it's an honor and also a privilege. I'm representing my country as a whole, my family, and myself.” But when he graduates from the prestigious school, he'll return to Sierra Leone and see what he can do to solve his country’s problems. Unless, that is, he solves them all in the remaining two years of high school.