If Africa needs an Einstein, Kenyan teenager Richard Turere could be it

Africa’s innovation revolution is gathering pace. The socio-economic and political challenges the continent face have fostered the growth of innovation. Paucity of traditional infrastructure also means many Africans have to look for ways to make their lives better and find solutions to everyday challenges.

In 2013, 13-year old Kenyan Richard Turere stood in front of about 1500 people at the TED Conference in Long Beach, California where he told them about his invention, which has come to be known as Lion lights.

Richard, who is from the Massai tribe, a group of semi-nomadic people inhabiting southern Kenya, had been responsible for his father’s cattle since he was 9. But his family had an enemy: lions. The big cats invade Richard’s neighbourhood, which is south of the Nairobi National Park where some of Africa’s declining lion population are located. The south part of the park is not fenced, which means animals migrate out of the park freely. These days they do not only invade farming communities near the park, they also stray into the city centre.

Since 1975, Africa has lost 80 – 90 percent of its lions and was going to lose more if Richard and communities close to the park lay in wait for the predators and kill them to avenge the deaths of their precious livestock. At a time, Richard’s family lost the only bull they had to a preying lion.

“My community, the Massai, we believe that we came from heaven with all our animals and all the land for herding them and that’s why we value them so much,” Richard told a very attentive crowd at the Ted Talk. “So, I grew up hating lions so much.”

The morans — warriors protecting the Massai community, therefore kill the lions and have depleted the lion population of the Nairobi National Park. Richard knew he had to find a way of solving the problem.

After trying a few tricks that did not work, Richard found out that lions are scared of moving light and here’s what he did: he got an old car battery that he kept powered by a solar panel. He attached it to a motorcycle blinker box, and then fixed a switch to the blinker box. He then took some of the bulbs from broken flashlights, and attached them to the wire which came from the switch. He faced the lights toward the wildlife preserve, and had the lights continually blink on and off at different intervals. The lions never showed up again. But not only lions were scared off, other predators stayed away from Richard’s cow shed.

The boy set the new technology up for seven more houses in his community, and they recorded the same result. The brilliant idea impressed Paula Kahumbu, then executive director at Kenya Land Conservation Trust, who together with her colleagues got Richard a scholarship at Brookhouse International School, one of Kenya’s most prestigious. Two years after he set up the lion lights which is now being used all over Kenya, the teenager was in the United States, speaking to adults who listened with rapt attention as he spoke about his innovation.

Richard’s school helped with fundraising and creating awareness about his brilliant solution, which is not only saving livestock but also the predators who are on the brink of extinction.

The lion lights have gone beyond Kenya. They are also being used in Zimbabwe. According to conservation group ALERT, which had fitted the “predator deterring” lights to 15 homes in the Matetsi Environmental Conservation Area (which shares a boundary with Hwange National Park, where Cecil the Lion lived before he was illegally hunted) by the end of 2015, lions are avoiding homesteads fitted with the lights.

“Since the installation of the lights there have been no attacks and all homestead owners have given positive feedback, saying they are now able to sleep at night,” said ALERT.

ALERT is fitting the lights as part of a project aimed at trying to cut down on conflict between humans and lions in the area.

Another Conservation Group Kalasingha has also been installing Lion Lights around the boundary of the Nairobi National Park that borders on homestead areas.

Lion-human conflict is a perennial problem in areas where livestock is kept by villagers in areas bordering national parks and wildlife conservancies, but Richard’s invention is settling the conflict, helping conservation efforts while also saving livestock.

Richard’s big dream is to become an aircraft engineer. For a guy who changed the world at 11, we have no doubts he will live his dream.