In recent years, a new generation of African leaders have turned their attention to tech and innovation. From Vibranium Valley in Nigeria to Kigali Innovation City in Rwanda, nations across the continent are investing heavily in young entrepreneurs and ideas to drive home-grown development. But among these initiatives, a recent announcement in Sierra Leone stands out: the appointment of a new chief innovation officer, Dr David Sengeh, a 31-year-old who studied at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for his PhD.
He heads a new Directorate of Science, Technology and Innovation (DSTI), established in the Office of the President. In the State Opening of Parliament, Sierra Leonean President Julius Maada Bio made clear that DSTI was precipitated by his belief that science and technology is the “bedrock for the development of any modern economy”, giving the unit the mandate to “facilitate and support a vibrant national innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem for both public and private sectors”. It sends a strong signal about the government’s ambitions and demonstrates its understanding that innovation can be key to improving service delivery for citizens.
Having worked in Sierra Leone for nearly a decade, the Institute has been proud to support government efforts in health, infrastructure and agriculture. But our work to set up the DSTI is one of the most exciting areas we’ve been involved in.
Sengeh’s education started at the Prince of Wales School. Although one of the top public secondary schools in Sierra Leone, the school does not routinely have students make it to Harvard or MIT. But having moved back to Africa after his studies, Sengeh has a clear passion for his country of birth and a strong desire to use his skills to improve the life of Sierra Leoneans. His TED Talk on improving prosthetic comfort for amputees, to support the 27,000 people who were disabled by the war, made him a legend back home. He is also credited with seeding innovation in the country and co-founded Innovate Sierra Leone, which has produced young innovators solving problems in health, energy and access to information. At the time of his appointment, Sengeh was a manager at IBM Research Lab in Nairobi focusing on the design and deployment of healthcare technologies in Africa.
Having worked in Sierra Leone for nearly a decade, the Tony Blair Institute has been proud to support government efforts in health, infrastructure and agriculture. But our work alongside Sengeh to set up DSTI and set its strategy to deliver the most impact for Sierra Leoneans is one of the most exciting areas our Institute has been involved in. There are many opportunities for government to apply new approaches to the challenges the country faces—something that has been clear in the number of requests the directorate has had from other government ministries, departments and agencies. The Institute is working with Sengeh to consider these opportunities and align them with the vision and priorities the president has set out for the government. These are free, quality education; revenue mobilisation; and economic diversification focusing on fishing, agriculture and tourism. Some of the exciting projects in these areas that the Institute is looking at with Sengeh include:
- Using technology to improve data collection on education, support accountability and safeguarding, and introduce new methods of teacher training to improve quality.
- Improving revenue collection from property tax using mapping. Freetown has over 100,000 houses, but the property tax register has fewer than 2,000 houses on it. New technologies can be used for maps and addresses to better support service delivery and revenue collection.
- Introducing satellite patrols to monitor and identify illegal fishing boats, mining or smuggling at borders.
- Supporting the immigration department in digitising the visa application process.
- Building a government data architecture to support data for policy and decision-making.
Sengeh’s position at the centre of government and in the Office of the President gives the rare opportunity of political will for innovation at the heart of government. It further creates a real opportunity for accelerated and improved service delivery for citizens, navigating the bureaucracy of government ministries. As Africa’s first chief innovation officer at the centre of government, Sengeh can set a new example of how governments can leapfrog and deliver more for Sierra Leoneans. The Tony Blair Institute is excited to support him in this journey.