This post was written by 2020 Young Explorer Richard Turere.
I’ve always had an interest in electronics, which was very different from most people in my village. If someone’s radio was destroyed in the village, I’d fix it. I was self-taught by breaking things. My family bought our first TV and the first day we had it, we watched it. The second day we had it, I wanted to see if the people inside it were real, so I took it apart.
As a boy growing up in the Maasai culture in Kenya, it’s your responsibility to protect the community and livestock and look after the cows. The Maasai culture is centered around the belief that God gave us the cows and the land for herding them; we believe that all the cows in the world are ours. Cows are everything to us — they’re our livelihood; we sell cows to send children to school.
By the time I was 9, I was out in the forest most of the time looking out for the cows. Around this time we started having a lot of human-wildlife conflict — with lions especially. During the wet season, the animals left Nairobi National Park because the grass was high and long; they came to the community for protection. The lions were left in the park with no food, so they went to the community lands during the night. When they came, they found the Maasai cows, which are very easy prey sleeping in a cowshed. And the warriors would retaliate the loss of the cows by killing lions. Kenya depends on tourism and the major tourist attraction in Kenya is lions, so this cycle created a big problem, but no one knew how to solve it.
We tried a lot of things to stop the lion attacks. I started putting up scarecrows — I knew the lions would not come when they could see me. But the lions are very clever and realized it was just a scarecrow. I also tried putting up a fence where the cows sleep, but the lions came and smelled the cows inside so that did not work.
I don’t give up. If I’m determined to do something, I will do it. So I got an idea. One night I walked around the cowshed with a basic flashlight as a torch. I did this for almost a week, and the lions didn’t come. That’s where the idea of Lionlights was born — what if I make lights that flash and mimic someone’s movement around the cowshed? It would look like I was out there all night, but I wouldn’t have to be.
No one actually thought it would work. But I just kept counting the days and by the second week, my parents realized that the lions didn’t come anymore. I was encouraged when my dad realized the lights were working and he bought me a solar panel. I used to carry a battery on my shoulders every two days to the nearest town (10 kilometers away) to charge it. Getting a solar panel as a gift meant I didn’t have to travel that distance — I put it on top of my house and could do more with the lights because I had more power.
I started adding more lights to the home, and then the community started paying attention. Lionlights went viral. We’ve been able to install them on 1,500 homes. We’ve had it adopted in Tanzania, Kenya, and it’s currently being tested in Botswana. There are Lionlights in Argentina for pumas and in India for tigers.
When I created Lionlights, it was for my family and community, but I didn’t realize how connected the world is. You see a solution that impacts someone you’ve never met and spreads around the world because of that interconnectedness.
Here are my tips for other young people looking to make an impact in their community (and beyond!):
- Always start small. When people say, “What idea do you have that can change the world?” start by looking for a problem that affects you and your community first. If you start small you can grow as a person with your idea.
- People might not always be with you. The resources may not be on your side, but if you start and work yourself up, things come with time. It’s a matter of persevering and having the courage to keep moving when things don’t look like they’re going to work out.
- As long as you know yourself, just do you and what makes you happy. I don’t think I achieved Lionlights because of anything but my curiosity and passion and not giving up. If you have the passion, you’re always going to find a way to teach yourself to work it out and you can achieve everything.
As one of National Geographic’s Young Explorers, I am going to hold a three-week-long bootcamp across Kenya for young people with big ideas like mine. It will be an opportunity for us as an organization to recognize young people and for them to show us what they’ve got. At the end of the bootcamp, we will select Lionlights Ambassadors to help us with awareness, engagement, etc. I want to support young people like me because so many people have great ideas, they just need someone to shine a light on them.
When have you been innovative when working toward a solution to help protect our planet? Join us in the #GenGeo community to shape the conversation and drive progress with your fellow young people. Can’t wait to see you there!
Feature image by Stanley Sakana/Lionlights