“I love lions. I don’t see why I shouldn’t love lions.
“If my cows are protected and they’re safe, we can live with the lions without any problem.”
It’s an odd thing for a Kenyan Maasai herder to say. Their sole job is to protect their cows by any means necessary. But 18-year-old Richard Turere is no ordinary herder.
When he was 11 years old he invented a solar-powered light system to keep the lions out of the cattle pen, as his family was losing as many as nine cows a week. With each cow worth up to $1,000 (£753) it was an expense the family just couldn’t afford.
“Lion attacks on our cattle were rampant and happened on a daily basis,” says Richard’s mother, Veronica. “After the lights, we had no more problems.”
It took a while for Richard to perfect his invention. He started with a scarecrow, which the lions soon ignored, then he built a dark shed so the lions couldn’t see inside the pen but they could still smell the cows.
One day he was walking around at night with a torch and, for once, the lions didn’t come to attack.
Richard made Lion Lights to mimic the movement of the torch, without needing him to stay up all night and keep watch.
“I began learning about electronics by breaking things,” Richard says. “I broke my mum’s new radio and she was very annoyed – she nearly killed me!”
The Lion Lights system is now in 750 homesteads in Richard’s community and beyond, with the innovator making small tweaks and improvements to each version.
“I’m often called in to do maintenance on the lights because people don’t really know how they work,” Richard says. “They try to fix them themselves, so I came up with the idea of making the system automatic.”
Lion Lights 2.0 costs $200 (£150) to install. Half of the money usually comes from NGOs while the rest is provided by the herder.
This version has 16 different flashing light settings and Richard’s latest update is a homemade wind turbine for days when clouds limit the solar power potential.
Richard’s community is particularly hard hit by the human-wildlife conflict. Sandwiched between the Nairobi National Park and the encroaching township of Kitengela, the “community lands” are only separated from the Park’s wildlife by a small river.
Every night wildebeest and zebra cross over to the community lands in search of fresh pasture – and the lions soon follow.
“Lions are a big problem. It’s very easy for them to prey on the cows and sheep, especially at night,” says Reverend Calvin Tapaya, a community Maasai preacher and pastoralist. “But the cows and the sheep are our banks. As Maasai, it’s where we store our money.”
Despite not receiving any government funding to date, Richard believes that his project is helping the Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS), which runs the country’s national parks.
According to the organisation, Kenya has been losing about 100 lions each year for the last decade with just over 1,700 left in the wild.
Some of those losses are caused by humans.
In 2012, six lions, including two adult lionesses and two cubs, were killed by a mob after they invaded a settlement in Kitengela. Richard’s Lion Lights work to protect the lions from nearby communities, like his own, as much as they protect the community’s cattle from the lions.
“Since 2010 there have been more losses of lions from retaliatory killings than there were before,” says wildlife expert Lucy Waruingi, executive director at the African Conservation Centre.
“There’s less land available to the Maasai and to the wildlife, so they’re coming into contact when before they didn’t.”
Right now there aren’t many alternative schemes to help those affected, let alone to try and prevent the clash between lions and humans, as Lion Lights tries to do.
In 2014, the Kenyan government passed a law that included a compensation scheme for those affected by the human-wildlife conflict. But, in practice, only sometimes is compensation paid and there’s a backlog of claims.
“We have not fully implemented compensation of livestock, property and crops, because there are guidelines which have not passed through parliament yet,” says James Kitarus, a community warden at Nairobi National Park.
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Richard’s innovation has changed his life in many ways – he got a scholarship to a prestigious school in Nairobi and was invited to meet Jack Ma, the founder of China’s e-commerce giant Alibaba to give a lecture in his honour.
He’s well known in Kenya and beyond as the “Lion Lights boy” and other communities have adopted versions of his lights from as far afield as Argentina and India.
More support needed
But while his idea has travelled, support for Richard as a young innovator and the implementation of his own Lion Lights has stalled in recent years. He thinks Kenya could do more to help young innovators like himself.
“There are many young people in Kenya with brilliant ideas, better even than mine – they just need support,” he says.
They need someone to be there to tell them, “this idea is really nice., let’s develop it to help communities”.
It’s not just Kenya that needs innovations like Lion Lights, wildlife expert Lucy Waruingi says. Human development is taking place at a rapid pace all over the world and governments need to support communities on the front-line of the human-wildlife conflict.
“Governments need to create platforms where innovators can contribute ideas that are working,” to help local communities find solutions to their problems, she adds.
Part of the reason that Richard couldn’t benefit properly as the inventor of Lion Lights was because, despite being the youngest Kenyan patent holder at the age of 15, he didn’t patent his idea soon enough.
He says he won’t make that mistake again and that he has plenty more innovations in the pipeline.
“I love technology, using my hands and being practical. It’s what I love doing and it keeps me going.”
Additional research by Sheila Kimani
This BBC series was produced with funding from Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
[Why is BBC taking money from the Gates Foundation to make programmes?KS]