OP-ED: Sierra Leone is not too poor to innovate – Vickie Remoe

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Sierra Leone’s government is betting on technology to boost its national development. It wants to show that poverty and innovation can coexist and that the latter can lessen the former. When the government launched its strategy for digitization last week, some citizens said the country was too poor to focus on technology.

If Sierra Leone was a football player coming out on a pitch to play these are the stats a commenter might read:

This country of 7 million people, is 184 of 188 on the human capital development index, and GDP per capita is less than $500. It is also a post-conflict country, has had an Ebola outbreak and an environmental disaster that killed over 1000 people in one day. Sierra Leone is the worst place in the world for women who want to become mothers, and girls here have it rough.

The numbers have been like this for 30 years. Developing countries, with poor people, should focus on poverty, not technological advancement.

Yesterday, Sierra Leone laid out a plan to use technology to digitize government spending, citizen identity, and to provide services.

Right there inside the conference center where it was launched, I heard one man say, “dis Sengeh e feel say all tin na data, all tin na code. Make e lef posin.” Sengeh is Sierra Leone’s chief innovation officer, a global leader in technology and innovation.

The plan to digitize is beyond comprehension for many. Stats, facts, and lived experiences of being Sierra Leonean make this vision too hard to visualize.

While the data on Sierra Leone’s state of the economy and its people is undeniable, this is the first time that the government of Sierra Leone is acknowledging that we’re living in a technological age. It’s the first time since Independence that the country is being intentional about joining the global Industrial Revolution, now in its fourth generation.

We don’t have manufacturing plants in Sierra Leone. We don’t have a service industry. We don’t have exports. We don’t have a bustling agricultural sector. Most of our citizens live in a state of food insecurity. A little more than half of the citizens here don’t have enough to eat. So yes, we are an impoverished nation, hard facts. However, this doesn’t mean that we are somehow biologically incapable of producing excellence, nor does it mean we can not strive for greatness.

After the launch, I saw a lot of skepticism online, people making fun of the very idea of digitization in a place like Sierra Leone.

One Facebook user posted:

Digital, but they’re reading from A4 paper.

Another questioned the performance of one of the greatest voices of her generation Amie Kallon and said that she was too analog to represent digital.

On Twitter, someone asked how people in an illiterate country could benefit from such a development.

Sierra Leoneans can’t believe that the same Sierra Leone of EDSA blackout dares to innovate. 

Believe it or not, Sierra Leone is innovating; it has already happened.

“The same wind that uproots trees makes the grass shine,” said Rumi, and this holds for Sierra Leone’s tech-driven development.

The same stats and data that make the doubters question our capabilities are the same that drive State House’s commitment to using technology for social good. We are far too poor for us to start counting one by one, using calculators when linear regression is here. The situation is too dire for us to stay binary when artificial intelligence offers us infinite answers to drive us towards better outcomes. What we are trying to do with technology is what others have done and succeeded. Why shouldn’t we?

When I was growing up in Sierra Leone, there was an expression (still used today) that was rife.

‘Whiteman get sense.’

If we were watching a movie and there was a technological demonstration we would say ‘aye whiteman get sense.’ If somebody brought a tool that simplified hard work, we would ‘callaye’ again and say ‘whiteman get sense’.

In fact, in our national consciousness, no people of color from any place have ever made any technological contribution or invention. Technology is the white man’s business. Genius is something others have, and we don’t.

We have an expression for our talent too, but it has nothing to do with sense. While we agree that the white man has sense we are equally convinced that black man, Salone man get badheart. This needs to change.

It requires reprogramming and mental adjusting for citizens of Sierra Leone. Specifically, the community online the 11% of the local population & the diaspora must reframe how they think about this country and embrace a new narrative.

Everybody needs to do that check. Why do I believe that excellence is not possible here? Why do I think that we can’t develop technology and use innovation for national development?

And if I don’t believe that we can be both poor and capable of technological advancement, what does it say about me and my relationship to my country of birth?

We can be low on all the development indices, and for political will to create an environment for technology and innovation to not just start here, but to thrive. Every great nation that’s transformed where we are, China, Singapore, Estonia achieved this because of vision into action.

All of these countries were, at some point, were underdeveloped and with citizens living much like we are in Sierra Leone today. That is until they created the policies, and the laws, that then gave birth to an ecosystem for technological and entrepreneurial growth.

While we may not have it all figured out with all our morbid facts and stats, we do for technology and innovation. (And the fight against corruption we have that in the bag.)

In just one year, we have had Kenyans, South Africans, Americans come here not to work at NGOs or development agencies but to work on technology and innovation. These are brilliant minds; technologists data scientists, problem solvers who have technical skills that they could take anywhere else. They are coming here because they believe that Sierra Leone is a place for technology and intellectual curiosity and problem-solving. They think that it is possible here. So they’re coming. They’re coming as interns, and they’re coming as fellows.

In addition, global leaders of technology for social good are giving us money to do the work that is being done at State House. No one would write us checks to scale technological solutions if we weren’t already demonstrating leadership in this area.

Sierra Leoneans face a lot of problems. Last week I was dropping off a friend at around 11:00 pm, and on my way back, I saw a man holding what looked like a baby, so I slowed down.

When I stopped, my worst fears were confirmed. It was a baby. I asked what had happened. He said he was taking the mother and the baby to the Congo Cross Police Station to file a report.

I asked the mother what had happened. She was 17.

The father of the child, who was only three weeks old, had denied the baby and kicked her out of the house at night.

She said this was her second child with the same man. She’s already a mother of two.

I dropped them off at the police station, and I didn’t know what to do or how I could help. If you’re a mother of two at the age of 17 in Sierra Leone, your prospects are already bleak. I didn’t have an answer for what was going to happen to her or her children.

These are the realities of life for Sierra Leoneans on the daily. But it is also true that Sierra Leoneans are using big data and machine learning to better understand our problems so that we can solve them. After having decades of failing schools and a failing education system, we now use science and technology to understand, specifically, what needs to be done to improve learning outcomes. And for this academic year, the government has introduced innovation in education piloting at 8000 schools with a $1.5 million investment. If the pilot phase yields result by improving literacy and numeracy for our early learners, then those innovative techniques will be implemented nationwide for the benefit of all children, including the children of the 17-year-old that I dropped off at Congo Cross at 11:00 pm.

Yesterday, at the launch of the Innovation and Digital Strategy, everyone who works at DSTI was on stage. It was the first time that I went to a government event where everybody leading, involved and doing, looked like me. And when I say looked like me, I mean, they’re of my generation — young people in their 20s and early 30s. Young people were doing all the leading, young people everywhere.

It wasn’t a music concert, and it wasn’t a fashion show, it wasn’t a youth awards show. It was a demonstration of excellence by young people in government. Although let’s be honest, the fashion was fabulous and the music was better than we’ve experienced in ages.

Furthermore, the event itself was not just a hey look at our work; it also set a new standard for event production. There were about 700 people in the audience; it was a full house until the end. Content curation from the demos to the audio was intentionally local, excellent, and enriching.

It just was beautiful, the kind of event that we’ve been watching other people do on TV in different countries and wondered how come we can’t do this here.

In the 18 months since we have had a change of government, there have been lots of lows, one of which I experienced personally.

There have also been incredible highs that have affirmed my faith in Sierra Leoneans.

Good leadership is about having a vision for national transformation. It is also about finding the right people to develop the policies to transform the idea into a reality.

For the fight against corruption and technology for development, we’ve got good leadership. Whether you believe that digitization can change the country is up to you.

But it will not hurt us as a nation if we try to apply scientific inquiry and to use data science. It will not hurt us if we try to use technology to understand our problems better and use the same to find solutions. But if we don’t try, then we stay exactly where we are and where we have been with our bare hard Salone facts and stats.

What I saw online after the launch (from those who weren’t there) was skepticism and cynicism and self-loathing commentary pretending to be constructive criticism — also a whole lot of arrogance.

If you believe that a country can be too poor to use technology for national development, then you’re wrong because technology is the only thing that stands between great nations and the rest of us.

Sierra Leone missed out on the first, second, and third industrial revolutions, but we will not miss out on the forth!

#ItIsPossible