Behind Sierra Leone’s Ambitious, Tech-Driven Development Plan
Adam Valavanis is a former intern with the Africa Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. He received a master’s degree in conflict studies from the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Sierra Leone currently ranks as one of the least developed countries in the world, with a GDP per capita of less than $300 and high levels of poverty. But President Julius Maada Bio has charted an ambitious development plan for the small West African country. Since 2017, President Bio has overseen increased investment in advanced technologies in the hopes of spurring development.
Much of Bio's inspiration comes from Estonia, the small Baltic state that has been dubbed a “digital republic.” The country has for years now been working to digitize government and society under the project e-Estonia. Citizens in Estonia can do things such as vote and pay taxes entirely online. Additionally, non-citizens are able to apply for e-Residency, a gambit to increase foreign investment and business in the country. In February, Sierra Leone announced a three-year partnership with the e-Governance Academy of Estonia "to establish technical collaboration on e-governance for public service delivery and administration in Sierra Leone." Bio hopes to make the country the “Estonia of Africa.” Sierra Leone has also courted support from top research institutions such as Yale University.
At the center of Bio's plans for Sierra Leone is the Directorate of Science, Technology, and Innovation (DTSI), headed by David Moinina Sengeh. Sengeh received his PhD from MIT and was named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list in 2014 for technology. He was part of a larger team that trained at Estonia's e-Governance Academy in May. From this trip came DTSI's six core projects: Integrated Geographic Information System, Education Data Hub, Financial Data Mapping, Ease of Doing Business, GoSL Appointment System, and Sierra Leone Drone Corridor. These projects, some of which are still under construction, are all meant to improve government efficiency and service delivery. The Integrated Geographic Information System provides minute data on things such as access to healthcare, education, and water for every region and town in the country. In September, President Bio unveiled the world's first portable DNA sequencer, which can provide "rapid, meaningful information in the fields of healthcare, agriculture, food, and water surveillance and education." The sequencer can also be used by police investigating sex crimes; earlier this year, President Bio declared a national rape emergency.
The data provided by DTSI could have a transformative effect on the government’s ability to ensure its citizens' needs are met and governance is improved. Sierra Leone could provide a model for the rest of the continent, which generally suffers from a perennial lack of reliable data. Bridging the data gaps in Africa would go a long way to increasing government capacity and realizing economic potential across the continent.