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Sierra Leone's 'smart country' ambitions

Abu-Bakarr Jalloh
October 15, 2019

Nanotechnology, blockchain, cloud computing: Sierra Leone's President Bio is banking on the most advanced technology to leapfrog the country out of poverty.

Sierra Leone | President Julius Maada Bio presents the MinION device
Image: Government of Sierra Leone

In a recent Facebook photo, President Julius Maada Bio proudly holds a small but high-tech piece of equipment. The device, called MinION, is a portable and relatively cheap DNA and RNA sequencer which can analyze genetic information in seconds. That makes it useful in a variety of fields from biological research to healthcare and agriculture.

Bio had met researchers working on the DNA sequencer during a trip to Canada where, earlier in the year, he gave a TED Talk on the future of Sierra Leone. Bio then invited the researchers to visit Sierra Leone to train local scientists and police on the potential uses of the DNA sequencer.

The MinION is one of several high tech instruments at the core of Bio's plans to make Sierra Leone – which ranks 184 out of 189 countries on the human development index – a hub for technology and innovation.

One of the first things Bio did when he became president in 2017 was to set up a Directorate of Science, Technology and Innovation (DSTI). In an unusual choice, Bio handpicked David Moininana Sengeh, who he has described as a "skinny, dreadlocked MIT Harvard inventor," to head the directorate. 

Hands holding three devices – MinION, power bank and a smartphone
MinION (right) is the world's only portable, real-time device for DNA and RNA sequencing. It's results are presented on a smartphone via the internetImage: Government of Sierra Leone

Sengeh is a bionics specialist with a PhD from MIT – one of the most prestigious tech universities on the world. Sengeh has mentored Sierra Leone's up-and-coming engineers and introduced the president to TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Talks and goings on at the universities of Oxford, Yale and Harvard.

Read more:  Opinion: The change of power in Sierra Leone is a big win for the people 

According to the DSTI, currently the only way for local scientists to test DNA in Sierra Leone is by sending samples to foreign countries. The Directorate is now testing the use of the MinION for investigating sex crimes as well as diagnosing plant diseases, such as the green mite that attacks cassava, a staple food in Sierra Leone.

"The power of genomics and mobile computing allows our students to build models to identify early cassava diseases so that a solution can be recommended to a farmer," Yusuf Keketoma Sandi, the presidential aide, wrote on Facebook.

The Estonia model

On its website, the DSTI states that President Bio wants to make Sierra Leone "the Estonia of Africa". In May, the small Baltic nation that gave the world Skype and stands as a global pioneer of e-governance, trained a team from Sierra Leone at its e-Governance Academy. 

Sengeh, whose unconventional choice of clothing makes him stand out in a country where suits and a tie take high priority, was part of that delegation. 

The outcome of the trip to Tallinn was DSTI's six core projects – including integrated geographical systems, education data hub, and drone corridor.

Read more: Ever wonder what Africa's first ladies do?

The yet unfinished website presents unprecedented amount of information on Sierra Leone. Choose any remote village school hundreds of kilometers away from the capital Freetown and you will find out how many benches teachers and pupils sit on, or if at all the school has a toilet or drinking water. And scroll on the map to find information on the geographical locations of the population, health facilities, courts and schools.

A map showing Sierra Leone between Guinea and Liberia
Diamond-rich Sierra Leone ranks among the world's poorest countries

Africa's first 'smart country'?

DSTI also set up Sierra Leone's first robotics research division backed by Yale University. Sengeh's team says this is to "support decision making through an evidence-based and data-driven process."

In August, Bio unveiled Africa's first-ever digital identification system based on blockchain technology and cloud computing. Blockchain allows a time-stamped series record of data distributed and managed by a cluster of computers. For instance, banks can effectively verify the credit history of a customer wishing to open an account or access a loan. 

Read more: Blockchain the future for remittance payments?

The government claims that the use of blockchain and cloud computing allows Sierra Leone to leapfrog tech systems and make essential services affordable.  

Last year, Bio's government reportedly rolled out Africa's first national digital identification system based on blockchain technology – continuing a program set out by his predecessor, President Ernest Bai Koroma.

But a California-based company hired by Koroma's government to carry out the scheme dismissed Bio government's claims of using blockchain. "They did not, that's false," says Jaye Connolly-LaBelle, president and chief executive of RippleNami.

Read more: German foreign minister: 'We can learn from Sierra Leone'

Ballerina Michaela DePrince
Over 60 percent of the population of Sierra Leone is under 25Image: picture alliance/AP Photo/D. Farrell

RippleNami is one of few companies in the world specialized in using blockchain technology to help governments in developing countries strengthen their tech systems. The company says so far only two African countries have signed a contract with them. The names of the countries are secret, for now, but Sierra Leone is not on the list, Connolly-LaBelle told DW.

"We know the people in that, and it was debunked," she added. President Bio's office did not respond to DW's request for an interview.

Wait… what high tech?

In Freetown, where a vast amount of the population cannot read, nor write, Bio's high tech solutions to problems seem alien. Even educated parts of the population, most often misunderstand him.

"As a father when my child asks a question I am not specialized in, I give him my phone and say: 'go to Google'," said Lansana Samai, a junior secondary school teacher.

"I think technology is a good venture."