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Sierra Leone will use DNA tests to help save crops, and investigate crimes- here is how

Sierra Leone’s researchers used the world’s first hand-held nanopore DNA sequencer, the MiniION to do DNA tests at a 3-day hands-on learning workshop at Njala University. 

Before now, the only way local scientists could test DNA was to take their samples to foreign countries. It was costly and inefficient. 

The team of scientists who facilitated the workshop was led by Dr. Laura Boykin, an expert in plant biology and computational science. Dr. Boykin’s journey to Sierra Leone began at the 2019 TED Conference in Vancouver where she and other TED Fellows met with President Julius Maada Bio. Dr. Moinina Sengeh, also a TED Fellow and Sierra Leone’s Chief Innovation Officer was part of that meeting in Vancouver. Both Dr. Sengeh and Dr. Boykin said they were inspired by President’s Bio call for the use of science for development. They continued conversations, and that led to the Directorate of Science, Technology, and Innovation (DSTI) organizing the technical workshop in Sierra Leone.

A group of scientists, researchers, and academics learning DNA sequencing techniques

Scientists, academics, and researchers from DSTI, Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security (MAFS), Njala University, Crime Scene Investigators of the Family Support Unit (FSU) at the Sierra Leone Police, and the Sierra Leone Agriculture Research Institute (SLARi) participated in scientific training. The training focused on applied and practical scientific methods, including basic pipette training, DNA extraction, DNA sequencing. A subset of the participants analyzed the data using standard methods and machine learning. 

DNA sequencing is the process used to determine the precise order of the four nucleotide bases adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine that make up a strand of DNA. MiniION Nanopore Sequencer is a mobile DNA/RNA testing device that performs biological analysis. According to the inventors of the nanopore sequencer – Oxford Nanopore Technology – the device is currently used for research into human genomics, cancer, microbiology, plants, and the environment in almost 100 countries. 

Dr. Laura Boykin – Senior TED Fellow & Plant Biologist at Njala University in Sierra Leone on September 17 2019 where she led a workshop on DNA sequencing

“Portable sequencing can help democratize science,” said Dr. Boykin

“The typical model is people fly from the UK or the US; they take the samples from here and use technology in their lab. That’s not empowering local people. We’re trying to get rid of this colonization of science.”

Beyond research, Nanopore sequencing provides rapid, meaningful information in the fields of healthcare, agriculture, food, and water surveillance and education. In Sierra Leone, the test cases will be plant pathology and the investigation of sex crimes.

Scientists at the workshop at Njala University also compared the results of the MiniION Nanopore DNA sequencing device to other Artificial Intelligence mobile apps and human experts for predicting cassava disease.

Out of a sample of 12 cassava plants, an evaluated Cassava AI App which works with mobile phones showed that 60% of the cassava plant samples had the Cassava Mosaic Disease. The App further revealed that 20% of the samples were infected with the Cassava Green Mite Disease, while 20% had no disease. However, the results and outcomes varied depending on the operating system of the mobile phones used to run the tests. When the same 12 samples were tested using Nanopore DNA Sequencing, the results showed that the AI App missed infections. Some samples that had reported negative by the App came back positive, and some samples that the app reported as having only Cassava Mosaic Disease had another infection.

“We are quite aware that 50% of the yield loss from our crops emanate from pests, weeds, and diseases,” said Dr. Alusaine Edward Samura, Plant Pathologist, Njala University. 

“You cannot effectively control those biotic stresses If you cannot identify the causative agent. Proper diagnostics leads to proper decision making in terms of providing solutions to mitigate the current problem.” 

In addition to helping plant biologists increase yield, DNA sequencing will also make it easier to investigate crimes, specifically sex crimes. Where a rape kit is collected, from a victim, DNA can later be used to match suspects with DNA left behind. 

The Family Support Unit deals with cases of sexual violence, domestic violence, child cruelty, and issues related to gender-based violence.

In 2016, Superintendent Mira Koroma, Head of the Family Support Unit, asked that the government finance a forensics lab to aid in the investigation of sex crimes. Three years later and the FSU still doesn’t have one. But with the Nanopore mobile DNA sequencing, they don’t need a lab, and for just $3000 they can test DNA evidence. 

“This workshop was an excellent demonstration of inter-agency collaboration between SLARI, MAFS, Njala, DSTI, and others,” said Dr. Sengeh. 

“The President challenged DSTI to bring the best from around the world to Sierra Leone so that we can learn and co-create to address our challenges and to fast track our national development. We are doing just that,” said Dr. Sengeh. 

At the end of the 3-day training, a device set was donated to Njala University where research scientists in Sierra Leone will continue to use the MiniION device for DNA extraction, sequencing, and analysis for other cash crops like cocoa, coffee, and to be used in crime investigation.

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The secrets of scientific writing unlocked at DSTI workshop at Fourah Bay College

The journey to becoming a published author just got a little easier for researchers and academics in Sierra Leone. Over 44 of the nation’s smartest minds participated in Dr. Elaine Nsoesie’s public lecture on writing and publishing in scientific journals at Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone. Dr. Nsoesie, who is a Professor of Global Health at Boston University School of Public Health, hosted the lecture as part of her fellowship at the Directorate of Science, Technology, and Innovation (DSTI).

Dr. Elaine Nsoesie, Professor of Global Health, Boston University, and Research Fellow at the Directorate of Science, Technology, and Innovation

“Scientific writing communicates a scientific idea or finding,” said Dr. Nsoesie.

“So maybe you have done research on a specific topic, for example, diabetes in Freetown and you want to write about what you found in your research. You can write your findings and publish them in a scientific journal. What we covered here today is the process of making that happen.”

A lot of ingenious work has been produced in Sierra Leone, but the local and international communities do not get to learn about them.

“As researchers, we often lack the writing skills to communicate our methodology and findings in scientific papers,” said Kumba Musa, a data scientist at DSTI who participated in the lecture.

Excellent scientific writing is clear, simple, impartial, logical, accurate, and objective. It is often technical and intended for others in a scientific field or discipline to learn something new. The scientific writing workshop taught participants how to write and publish a scientific paper.

Publishing in international journals and publications make Sierra Leone known for its contributions to global science. Notable Sierra Leonean scientist, Dr. Davidson Nicol published groundbreaking discoveries on the use of insulin for the treatment of diabetes. DSTI supports research and innovation in academia; providing opportunities that make it easier for local scientists to have their works published is key to that mission.

“In Sierra Leone, we are a bit lacking in terms of research writing, but with this training, I believe we can improve our capacity to do research,” said Mariama Lahai, a researcher at Connaught Hospital who attended the workshop. Like Dr. Nicol, Lahai’s research is also on diabetes.

“I’m looking at the prevalence of depression amongst patients with Type 2 diabetes. I collect data from our weekly counseling sessions with patients suffering from diabetes and hypertension”.

Another workshop participant said the lecture would impact their work is a laboratory technician and researcher from the University of Makeni.

“This workshop will help me write a good dissertation in my final year,” said Yusif Osman Sheriff.

He said that he is already working on research that he hopes to publish before the end of the year. He and Lahai were amongst 102 people who applied to attend the scientific writing workshop. Half of the best applicants were chosen and of those 44 attended.

DSTI has formed partnerships with international institutions of higher learning to create opportunities that support and strengthen the ecosystem for scientific research and academia in Sierra Leone. These have included hands-on learning hackathons on artificial intelligence and workshops for professors, students, academics, and researchers. This scientific research writing workshop was supported and done in collaboration with the Ministry of Technical and Higher Education and the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sierra Leone.

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Sierra Leone turns to technology and analytics to put quality back into education

Today, an estimated 2 million students return to school for the second year of the Free Quality School Education (FQSE) Program. The Government of Sierra Leone commits 21% of the national annual budget to the education sector as part of this historic initiative.  Last year’s focus was on universal access – tuition subsidies and learning materials. This year, policymakers will use data science and analytics to focus on quality to improve learning outcomes.

Click to view this visualization in the education hub

The FQSE Program is part of Sierra Leone’s larger national development plan which focuses on human capital development. Sierra Leone currently ranks 151 out of 157 countries on the Human Capital Index (HCI), which measures the level of productivity a child born today can expect to attain by the age of 18. The primary indicators are health and education. Children are expected to complete 9 years of basic (primary and junior secondary) education in Sierra Leone. A child born today will produce at 35% of his or her potential at 18 years if he or she had quality education and good health. However, for half of that time, students are enrolled but are not learning. Sierra Leone has a learning gap of 4.4 years according to the most recent HCI

The Government of Sierra Leone wants to change this statistic.

A new national Education Data Hub (www.educationdatahub.dsti.gov.sl) developed by the Directorate of Science, Technology and Innovation (DSTI) in partnership with the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education (MBSSE) shows that at least 80% of students across Sierra Leone failed the West African Senior Secondary Certificate Exam (WASSCE) between 2016-2018. 

Click to view this visualization in the Education Hub

Five districts: Bo, Bombali, Bonthe, Moyamba, and Pujehun have reported fail rates greater than 96%. While student performance drops slightly from the primary to junior secondary level, performance declines dramatically from junior to senior secondary school. The Education Data Hub includes data from the Annual School Census (Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education, 2018) and the National Examination Results (West African Examination Council, 2016-2018) for all three national exams (NPSE, BECE and WASSCE). 

The Minister of Basic Senior and Secondary Education (MBSSE) says they can now make better decisions and inform education policy because of data analysis and visualization available via the education data hub.

“For the President’s vision of Human Capital development to materialize, agriculture is involved, health is involved, but the narrative starts with education,” said Mr. Alpha Osman Timbo, Minister, MBSSE at a recent Ministry leadership workshop.

The Minister said that the availability of data will allow decision-makers like him to change the way they plan, how they spend, and where they invest government resources. The data hub will ensure that beyond making education free and accessible for all children, quality takes focus. Citizens too can use the data to hold policymakers and educators accountable when students fail and to also directly support their schools thereby increasing accountability. 

The Chief Innovation Officer of DSTI, Dr. Moinina David Sengeh, says the data casts a dark shadow over the nation’s recent educational past and its current state. He recently did a demonstration of the education data hub showing never before seen linked data to all Deputy Directors of Education from all districts, Free Quality School Education (FQSE) program heads, leaders of the Teaching Service Commission, and the leadership of MBSSE at the regional consultative workshop for the FQSE Implementation Plan.

“While most people had an idea that our education system had challenges, they believed that their districts, schools, and children were doing well because they did not look at the entire data. But when you see the numbers, it becomes clear that something major is wrong and that education over the years has been a disaster in Sierra Leone,”  said Dr. Sengeh.

“For example, the WASSCE pass rate for Pujehun district – where my parents come from –  was 1% last year. We cannot have our children spending twelve years in school and have none of them pass to go to university. What is discouraging is that the fail rates happened repeatedly and yet no known changes of impact were made by parents, educators or the government at the time.”

A team of data and computer scientists at DSTI prepared the data and led the development of the hub and its dashboards with partners over eight months starting in January 2019. The hub data includes (10,747 schools) every school in Sierra Leone that responded to the Annual School Census in 2018. National Examination data records were also obtained from the West African Examination Council for the 2016-2018 period. Linking these records and validating population data from Statistics Sierra Leone allows for deeper research and analysis of a variety of indicators that may have an impact on student learning outcomes.

“For the first time in history, we can begin to understand the effect of having bathrooms in good condition on examination performance. Being able to visualize the distribution of schools that have computers or bank accounts, or need classrooms, allows decision-makers to now interact with data to inform policies,” said Kumba Musa, Data Scientist, DSTI.

“The combination of datasets also helps the Ministry understand the distribution of children that are out of school across the country, map the distances students have to commute to access school and visualize poorly performing schools against their approval statuses,” said Ms. Musa. 

To prepare, clean, and validate the data, scientists at DSTI worked in close collaboration with staff at the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education, particularly the Policy Unit headed by Mrs Adama Momoh. Mrs Momoh heads a team of experts within the Ministry who lead the digital collection of the school census and have technical knowledge on the education sector. Missing data, invalid entries, misspellings, and several other structural challenges made it tedious to clean the datasets. However, through the power of data analytics algorithms and from the lessons learned, the team at DSTI have developed models to expedite the cleaning of the 2019 data.

The hub and dashboard show that Sierra Leone’s commitment to education goes beyond getting students into school buildings. Year one of the previously seemingly impossible Free Quality School Education Program launched by H.E President Bio focused on access. Now, the country can begin to explore quality education by using data to optimize the learning outcomes of Sierra Leonean children so that they can become productive adults engaged in national development.

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First year college student beats 12 others to win first idea challenge at Commonwealth ICT Forum in Sierra Leone

Mahmoud Gbessay, 23, has won the first-ever Connectivity & Innovation Idea Challenge organized by the Directorate of Science, Technology, and Innovation (DSTI), the National Telecommunications Commission at the Commonwealth ICT Forum on connectivity in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Gbessay’s idea is Education Television (E-TV), a home-based channel broadcasting at 5.5MHz with a range of 100 meters that will create and share educational content nationwide. ETV uses solar panels and has a radio frequency transformer, a trimmer capacitor, some resistors, and other components. Gbessay’s ETV was one of 13 entries to the Idea Challenge. He won a cash prize of SLL 5,000,000 sponsored by the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation (CTO) and the National Telecommunications Commission (NATCOM).

Gbessay, who is from Freetown, is a first-year student studying Computer Science at Njala University. The young innovator has always had an interest and passion for problem-solving.

“It all started with configuring mobile phones. I used to assist people with mobile phones and tablets when I was younger. I was also into electronics. So I would repair radios, build other electronic devices that people use around the house, and help people with their appliances in my community,” said Gbessay.

Four shortlisted candidates were invited to pitch their ideas at the Commonwealth ICT Forum. Each candidate had 3 minutes to tell the audience and judges about their concept. The winner was chosen by a panel of judges representing DSTI, CTO, and NATCOM using the following metrics: innovation, impact, and feasibility. Ideas that focused on thematic areas of the CTO conference were given special consideration.

“I am overwhelmed by this win. Education TV can now become a reality. I will be able to build a prototype and make my contribution to education in Sierra Leone,” said Gbessay.

In addition to the prize money, Gbessay will have an opportunity to develop his prototype with technical support from the Directorate of Science, Technology, and Innovation. Dr. Moinina David Sengeh, Chief Innovation Officer, DSTI said that Idea Challenges and hackathons support the local tech and innovation ecosystem.

“Sierra Leone’s entrepreneurship ecosystem is growing quickly. There are various hackathons where young people share ideas, meet up to develop solutions, and attract funding. We need many more of these kinds of opportunities so that people like Mahmoud Gbessay can be incentivized to imagine!” said Dr. Sengeh.

Gbessay says that hackathons and idea challenges give young people like him a push in the right direction. Beyond the opportunity to showcase their talent, seeing others create and do will motivate others.

“People need to know that Sierra Leone is not only rich in mineral resources. We have people that are rich with ideas; we have great thinkers and doers,” said Gbessay.

With his prize, Gbessay says he will pay for online courses to learn python. He wants to explore concepts around machine learning and artificial intelligence. This summer, he plans to continue working on a mobile application already in development that will help students become better learners.

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First time hackers at urban mobility hackathon in Sierra Leone win 38 million leones to prototype USSD transport payment solution

A team of 10 young Sierra Leoneans has won 38 million leones for their innovative mobile payment solution. They met for the first time at the three-day Resilient Urban Mobility Hackathon. The hackathon funded by the World Bank Group was organized by the Ministry of Transport and Aviation, Sierra Leone Road Transport Corporation (SLRTC), and Sensi Tech Hub under the technical leadership of the Directorate of Science, Technology, and Innovation (DSTI). Hackathons are events in which programmers, designers, those involved in computer software development and problem-solvers come together to solve problems with innovative ideas. Contributing to this partnership, were other stakeholders, including local and international experts in urban mobility and planning.

Over 100 first-time and seasoned hackers came together to develop solutions to improve urban mobility (capturing the movement of people in cities using urban transportation systems).

“We are here to create solutions to help facilitate the process of solving a problem around the issues we’re having in moving people and goods across our city,” said Morris Marah, Founder, and Director, Sensi.

“The problems include safe roads, smart parking, disaster management, environment safety, and pollution, all of these things are issues we have at large in our city.”

Marrah’s organization Sensi creates spaces for young people to develop skills for innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship. As the implementing partner Sensi (through the support of DSTI) received a grant of US $48,851,33 from the World Bank to organize the manage the hackathon. The hackathon is part of a drive to create an ecosystem to support the World Bank’s integrated and resilient urban mobility project in Sierra Leone.

Before the hackathon, DSTI in collaboration with the World Bank organized a one-day workshop to train participants on the tools and technologies for processing and analyzing large-scale data from cellular phones often referred to as Call Detail Records (CDRs). Over fifteen participants representing Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs), Sensi Tech and other private sector entities attended the workshop.

Data scientists and software developers from DSTI provided technical support and mentorship to the teams to build prototypes/tools, including guidance on how to improve and scale their prototype during the hackathon.

The first day of the hackathon included presentations from key stakeholders from the transport sector, including Sierra Leone Road Transport Corporation (SLRTC), Sierra Leone Road Safety Authority (SLRSA), Freetown City Council (FCC), Sierra Leone Urban Research Center (SLURC), the World Bank, and DSTI Sierra Leone. The 105 participants were divided into 11 groups.

22-year-old Ishmael Kargbo, a developer, and graduate of Blue Crest College led Mobility Hackers Team, the winning team which included; Mariam Cremelda Conteh (22), Mohamed Lamin Kargbo (23), Alhassan Turay (21), Tejan Kamara (23), Peter Joshua Conteh (26), Princess Koroma (23), Walter Marvey-John (27), Abdulai Bah and Sarah Blessing Kargbo.

Their idea for the $4000 prize is SwiftPay. SwiftPay uses Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) to allow users to make mobile payments to purchase bus tickets. SLRTC told the hackers in its presentation that when bus conductors sell tickets, money comes up short. The ticket sales don’t match the cash that is brought back to SLRTC at the end of the workday. SwiftPay uses USSD because most Sierra Leoneans do not own smartphones and already use the same platform via mobile money. Although Ishmael Kargbo’s team won the hackathon, he felt intimidated when he arrived at the event.

“When I came in on the first day I was afraid seeing developers, innovators, entrepreneurs gathered in one place,” said Kargbo, Group Leader Mobility Hackers.

Sierra Leone needs to develop a dynamic community of innovative and creators to disrupt the status quo with solutions to meet the challenges affecting the nation’s most vulnerable citizens.

“We were the second team to pitch our ideas, and after listening to presentations from the other teams, we were sure that ours was the winning idea and this is because all the other teams had ideas that made sense but was difficult to implement. Ours, on the other hand, was easier to implement and easier to use,” said Kargbo.

The goal of the hackathon was to actively engage the public, especially problem-solvers, as a means of strengthening the entrepreneurial and tech ecosystems.

“We are creating opportunities that bring together change agents, tech operators like Sensi, hackers, donors, and Ministries, Departments, and Agencies as we work collectively to make Sierra Leone an innovation nation,” said Mahmoud Javombo, Ecosystems Manager, DSTI.

Kargbo and his team will spend the next three months working under the mentorship of technologists at Sensi Tech and DSTI. There they’ll get administrative, and technical support to develop the prototype for SwiftPay, USSD payment solution.

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DSTI, UNICEF, Njala University, Civil Aviation Authority, and Korri Chiefdom to establish a 25-acre drone test corridor in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone has taken the first steps towards the establishment of a drone test corridor. The Directorate of Science, Technology, and Innovation (DSTI) and its partners will use the corridor for testing use cases including drone delivery of medical supplies, and aerial imaging for disaster management and response to remote areas. In this regard, DSTI has signed a Memorandum of Action with partners UNICEF-Sierra Leone, Njala University, and Korri Chiefdom to secure 25 acres of land for the testing of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), also known as drones.

Sierra Leone’s drone corridor will be one of six supported by UNICEF in the world and the technology promises to transform disaster management.

“The corridor means access to technology to provide immunizations and deliver medical supplies to children in need in remote areas during emergencies,” said Andrew T. Sellu, UNICEF Chief of Field Office.

In 2017, Malawi launched Africa’s first drone test corridor in partnership with UNICEF. There, industry, universities, and individuals have been able to test the use of drones for imagery, connectivity, and transport. The drone test corridor at Mokonde, Njala University will offer the same opportunities for learning and exploration for the use of drones in Sierra Leone and create research opportunities for students and fellows. The government’s Medium-Term National Development Plan recognizes the need to use advanced technologies to overcome existing challenges.

“Drone technology is an emerging field that offers the government the opportunity to test its impact on health service delivery to far-reaching regions of the country,” said Michaella George, Policy Lead, DSTI.

“Beyond telemedicine; the delivery of drugs, or medical equipment, research has shown that drones can be useful during and after disaster relief efforts. They can provide an instant telecommunications infrastructure, perform equipment/drug/patient delivery, enhance search and rescue efforts, assess damage, and map disaster zones.”

DSTI and Sierra Leone’s Civil Aviation Authority (SLCAA) are collaborating to develop policy recommendations and regulations for drone operations locally. The partnership with SLCAA will ensure that the nation’s aviation body will be involved with the research and the promotion and sensitization of the public on acceptable drone use.

The 25-acre drone testing corridor was well received by the Paramount Chief of Korri Chiefdom who sent a representative to express their commitment and support for the introduction of new technology for youth in their community.

“One community benefit of which I am convinced is that this project will help us overcome the challenges of access to rural areas during emergencies,” said Dr. Phillip Mornya, School of National Resources Management, Njala University.

Students, researchers, and staff from Njala University will have access to the Corridor. Njala student and staff will handle the day to day operations of the corridor while DSTI will provide technical leadership, and oversee the evaluation of licenses of drone operators, as well as lead the research around local test cases for drones in the corridor.

The Directorate of Science, Technology, and Innovation reaffirms its commitment to partners, researchers, and technologists interested in the exploration of drone technology both in the public and private sectors as Sierra Leone glides towards its first drone corridor. DSTI will announce details for program participation in due course.

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Sierra Leone launches e-ID for more social and financial inclusion for 5.1 million citizens. 

Sierra Leone has digitized its national identification system to make it easier to deliver services to all citizens. The National Civil Registry Agency (NCRA) has launched an electronic identification system for 5.1 million citizens.

Nancy Gbamoi became the first person in Sierra Leone to open a bank account by accessing her digital ID with her thumbprint from the NCRA database. A teacher from Port Loko District, she said that this wasn’t her first bank account, but the digital identification will be easier to use.

“If you misplace your ID card and you want to use some money from the bank you won’t be able to make a financial transaction,” said Gbamoi.

“Now I’ll have access to my money even if I don’t have my ID with me.”

The digital ID after pilot testing and implementation for financial services will be rolled out as the principal means of identification for citizens seeking to receive services from the government. UN Sustainable Goal 16 requires all nations to provide legal identity for all citizens to build effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions.

According to a World Bank 2018 Sierra Leone Financial Inclusion Project Fact Sheet, 12.4 percent of adults in Sierra Leone have a bank account. The total number of those with access to formal financial services, including mobile money is 19.8 percent. Opening a bank account starts with establishing the identity of each customer. Banks must meet a Know Your Customer (KYC) requirement, which prevents fraud and lets financial institutions verify and authenticate each account holder. A completed KYC must have an ID, address and in some cases referees. But in Sierra Leone identification is a burden both on banks and potential customers.

“A lot of our people still do not have their physical IDs. Even though the National Citizen Registry Registry holds about 5.1 million registrants of our citizens,” said Dr. Patricia Laverley, Deputy Minister of Finance.

“The new platform will help about 20% of financially excluded adults who are unable to access financial services because they lack the correct documentation to prove their identity.”

President Julius Maada Bio launched the digital platform, which is led by the Bank of Sierra Leone (BSL) in collaboration with the Ministry of Finance and supported by UNDP and Kiva. Kiva is an American company that gives loans to individuals who would otherwise not have access to credit from banks. They operate in 80 countries, including Sierra Leone.

“At the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly last year, I announced a partnership with the UN and Kiva to launch a bold new initiative designed to give a country’s several million citizens access to financial services. Today, we have accomplished that objective,” said President Bio.

“My government has developed a National Digital Identification Platform. I announce with pride that this is Africa’s first Blockchain and decentralized national digital ID system.”

Although Kiva is backstopping the platform with Kiva Protocol – a digital identification system that uses Blockchain distributed ledger technology, the NDIP data usage will be governed by Sierra Leone’s laws. The Directorate of Science, Technology, and Innovation provided the policy guidelines for use, access, and protection of citizen data.

“Kiva policy and technical team have met with us at DSTI several times to review and co-develop system architectures, deployment plans and agree on technical roadmaps,” said Dr. Moinina David Sengeh, Sierra Leone’s Chief Innovation Officer who heads the Directorate.

“We worked with partners in government to provide technical support where needed. For example, after NCRA reviewed the Data Protection Agreement, DSTI further scrutinized the agreement to ensure that the protection of data is a paramount activity even in this pilot. Because Sierra Leone does not have any current modern data protection laws, it is important that we use this process to enhance innovation, protect citizens while laying the groundwork for comprehensive legislation.”

The only way that anyone can access the citizen data is after that citizen has unlocked their ID and consented to share their data. Speaking at the launch of Africa’s first blockchain national data ID platform, Dr. Samuel Doe, UNDP Country Director for Sierra Leone, said that collaboration and determination allowed Sierra Leone to act in record speed.

“To develop a distributed ledger technology-based credit reference platform that will provide for national identity, financial profiles, and financial inclusion is a shining example of a whole of government response to a development challenge.”

Each registered citizen can unlock their digital ID with their thumbprint. Once unlocked citizens can grant access to their biodata to any institution connected to the digital ID platform. The technology that collects, stores, and makes the platform work is an encrypted distributed data storage system known as Blockchain. Blockchain ensures that the e-IDs will be decentralized, transferable, and where need be interoperable. Once deployed to national scale Ministries, Departments, and Agencies (MDAs), will be able to use the digital ID to provide social services whenever a citizen grants them access.

The NCRA collected Nancy Gbamoi’s data along with over 3.1 million others who registered to vote for the 2018 elections. The NCRA database also includes 2 million additional citizen biometric data collected from the same for the 2012 elections, and other registers like government payroll for the civil service.

“For the government, a critical function we are seeking to optimize for is service delivery and citizen engagement. To ensure that the right citizen or resident gets their benefits and services at the right time, in the right place, we need to be able to authenticate who they are,” said Dr. Sengeh.

“We are hoping that this platform can be used to bring services to citizens across all spectrums: for those in far remote areas needing to access their postal mail or mobile money to those in cities wanting to pay for public and private sector services from their handheld devices. The opportunity is in our hands.”

Gbamoi’s biodata and other information unique to her is now digitally accessible. She and 5,1 million citizens now has a unique digital identity that the government can verify.

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President Bio’s Free Quality Education inspired MIT post grad to intern at DSTI

President Julius Maada Bio on his visit to Massachusetts Institute of Technology made a passionate call in a town hall in Massachusetts for technologists to join computer scientists at the newly formed Directorate of Science, Technology, and Innovation to solve Sierra Leone’s development problems. Mgcini Keith Thuthi a post-graduate physics student at MIT chose to answer the call.

In the president’s speech he spoke concerning the National Development plan and how people can look for a role they can play to execute the plan outsiders or not.

“We know that you can play a role and you are always welcome, we want you to come there is a wealth of knowledge here in this hall alone and around the United States and I invite you all to join us and make Sierra Leone a better place.”

Motivated by the President’s speech, Keith just had to come and honour the call of the President and the team from DSTI to be part of the technological change, he therefore abandoned his summer holiday vacation to spend that time in Sierra Leone.

It is no secret that the DSTI is an enthusiastic group of change makers formed by President Julius Maada Bio whose vision is to use technology and innovation for human capital development and national transformation and is being monitored by the Office of the Chief Minister.

Keith gave DSTI Media a heart warming interview when we caught up with him after his internship in Sierra Leone.

DSTI Media:- Why did you come to Sierra Leone?

Keith:-I wanted to do something in Africa before the summer break, before I go to graduate school. And I was talking to a few people a number of people from a delegation from Sierra Leone, including the President, and people from the DSTI came to my school, and talked about the projects that they were doing. And they mentioned a few that I found very interesting. And I talked with them, and decided that this is where I wanted to be over the summer break.

DSTI Media :- What attracted you to come to DSTI?

Keith:- The Free Quality Education Program was the one I found most interesting. And then there was also topics on energy, Ease of Doing Business and I found the whole project very ambitious

DSTI Media:- As you are from an African country why did you chose Sierra Leone?

Keith:- So I wanted to gain experience working in Africa, and again, after talking to the delegation that came, they seem very enthusiastic about the projects that they were working on and it was very interesting and ambitious. I therefore wanted to be part of something that was actively trying to do something positive.

DSTI Media:– What were your expectations coming to Sierra Leone?

Keith:- Yes, I had concerns. I did not know the language. I’ve never been to West Africa. The expectations I had the group seemed very enthusiastic and I was hoping that was actually the case that it wasn’t just a show that they were giving to us. And I think I found that it is it is a very ambitious group that’s working really hard, which was great.

DSTI Media:- Were your expectations met?

Keith:- Yes, I’m very satisfied with my experience, especially the work that we are doing, we are in a position where we are doing things that can actually affect people positively. The group of people that I see around, I noticed they care about their community, they care about Sierra Leone, they care about Africa, they care about what they’re doing. So to me, that’s the most valuable thing to have, because people are actually trying to make a positive difference. I’m happy to be a part of that, to tap into that, and possibly contribute to that as well.

DSTI Media:– On what projects have you contributed?

Keith:- So I’ve been working mostly with data science and innovation team mostly to do things that have to do with education. I think I came at a good time when a lot of discussions were starting. So that meant I could get involved from the beginning, became really useful to me to get on board. And so many things we’re talking about, finding ways to so one of the things that we want to do as the education team is to use data science to inform policymakers to use data for decision making one of the pillars of DSTI. Also one of the things we wanted to do was to help the Ministry of Education figure out a way to build more schools that’s one of the main things I’ve been working on.

In my time here we’ve changed our approach to so many things, and I think we are slowly getting to a point where we know how we can make these suggestions with schools or guide policymakers. And that it’s not just about making decisions, but we help them and give them any information they need to make that decision. So we are doing a lot of collecting data, keeping that data and then doing data science and analysis on top of that, to bring out any insights we can get anything in terms of answering the questions that people might have and then beyond that there’s also the issue of being able to communicate what you’re doing because that’s very important so that it has an effect, you must be able to go to stakeholders and say, we have these insights do you understand them, and can you use them.

DSTI Media:- What impact do you think this work will have on Sierra Leone?

Keith:- I think the real output of what we do translated into policy for policymakers, when they use our information we provide them, the tools we provide to make decisions. The output is reports and visualization. Things can be presented to stakeholders to say you have all these insights, you know a place where children have to travel 15 kilometres to go to school, if you’re to make decision, if the government is trying to build more classrooms, the information we have collected would help them make the right decision on which schools should benefit from that.

DSTI Media:- how do you feel being part of such contribution?

Keith:-I feel that it’s important work am contributing towards and it is just a piece or part of the whole system. So for anything we do to be successful we all need to work together. I feel like we can individually make different contributions, but we need to work together to get the outcome. So I’m yet to see if this affects anyone. In terms of education, success means whatever we come up with that affects the child in the classroom positively. In terms of my time here the contributions I have made might trickle down to a student who can maybe go to a new school or get on the bus to go to school.

DSTI Media:– You as a technologist, what lessons have you learned working at DSTI Sierra Leone?

Keith:- Every day, I learn a lot of new things working here that I certainly didn’t know what to do when I got here I still don’t know how to do everything. Half of my time is spent looking at how to do things. So technically, I learned a lot faster now looking at data and analyzing data, because I have been practicing it over the last few months.

So technical skills, I think I gained a lot and improve what I had before.

DSTI Media:- So how do you find the work environment?

I feel like this is one of the best work environments I’ve had. I really enjoyed it. The people are friendly, they help each other, we have open discussions. Everyone’s opinion is important. And we come to a unanimous decision on what to do next, so this makes everyone feel like they’re contributing.

DSTI Media:- What recommendations do you have for others in others in tech?

Keith:- My advice I would give is start now there’s so much that can be done. If you have even the slightest idea and the simplest ideas bring them here. And those little things when you build them up, those things help build your CV for future employers.

Blog

MIT prepares Sierra Leone’s higher education faculty for better learning outcomes

The MIT-Sierra Leone Program has organized its first learning workshop for educators in Sierra Leone. The seminar at Njala University was a three-day (August 5-7th, 2019) short course on problem-solving approaches in higher education. The MIT-Sierra Leone Program is a partnership between the Government of Sierra Leone through the Directorate of Science, Technology, and Innovation (DSTI), and the Ministry of Technical & Higher Education.

“Since the launch of the MIT-Sierra Leone Program it has been a pleasure to have Njala University as an affiliate of the Jameel World Education Lab (J-WEL) MIT’s higher education initiative,” said Professor Hazel Sive, who is the founding coordinator of MIT-Africa. The MIT-Africa Short Course is a new initiative. It not only focuses on strengthening the link between Njala and MIT, but it creates a bridge between MIT and Sierra Leone’s universities to improve curricula.

Sive is a professor of biological sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge where she also focuses on the evolving role of faculty in teaching and scaling of curriculum reform. She leads the MIT-Sierra Leone Program launched in March this year after a high-level government delegation led by President Julius Maada Bio visited Boston.

“One of the first things President Bio asked us to do at DSTI was to create links between Sierra Leone and world-class institutions globally. So we went to Harvard and MIT because they are the best higher education institutions in the world,” said Dr. Moinina David Sengeh, Chief Innovation Officer, DSTI.

” This unique and historic partnership formed between Sierra Leone and MIT less than six months ago has led to over a dozen bilateral exchanges of talent and resources. These interactions are already leading to several new solutions that will impact the lives of everyday citizens in the entrepreneurial, and education sectors.”

Present were representatives from all public higher education institutions in Sierra Leone including; Ernest Bai Koroma University, Milton Margai, and Kenema Polytechnic. With this course, Njala University opened its doors to share knowledge gained from its affiliation with MIT’s J-WEL. Top on the agenda for educators and government was curricula reform-turn college graduates into entrepreneurial 21st Century problem solvers.

“We hope that the representatives here are not only learning but trying to translate what they have learned by looking at their curricula and trying to incorporate some of these best practices to enhance the capability and the marketability of our products which are the graduates from our institutions,” said Fatmata Kaiwa, the Director of Science & Education at the Ministry of Technical & Higher Education.

The Government of Sierra Leone has committed 21% of the country’s budget to education. The highest on record to date. The focus on education is at every level; pre-primary to tertiary. Also, a human capital development incubator has been launched at State House to further demonstrate the New Direction’s commitment to learning, innovation, and research.

“The World Bank has been working with the Government of Sierra Leone to strengthen the education sector in the country. We are keen to build the foundations for the demanded skills development in the country which will help the country build strong intellectual human capital,” said Dr. Mari Shojo, Senior Education Specialist, Education Global Practice, World Bank.

DSTI and its partners; the World Bank, UNICEF, MIT, national educators and policymakers across all Ministries, Departments, and Agencies are collaborating to develop a national ecosystem to improve learning outcomes from beginning to the end of the education lifecycle. Through academic exchange and research, the MIT-Sierra Leone Program allows educators to learn world-class techniques to make students successful.

Blog

DSTI Sierra Leone scientist contributes to Artificial Intelligence and Child Rights policy with support from UNICEF

Freetown, Sierra Leone: Kumba Musa is a data scientist and machine learning expert at DSTI, where she teaches policymakers and academics how to use Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools to clean, analyse, and visualise data. Ms. Musa joined 50 artificial intelligence experts from different countries, who gathered at UNICEF in New York City to take steps towards developing policy guidance for AI and child rights.

While Artificial Intelligence (AI) in Sierra Leone is being used to inform education policy at the highest national level, there is still little awareness amongst the public about the benefits or dangers for children living in a world that is driven by AI.

Musa says that the ongoing collaboration between DSTI and UNICEF means that lessons from Sierra Leone will help to shape global policy around child rights and AI by addressing questions such as what happens when decisions are made using datasets that may be gender-biased? Or how do we use algorithms that we understand and can tweak to promote desired outcomes for children?

These important guidelines are being developed at a time when Sierra Leone and the world are marking the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) on the 20th November 2019. AI systems are expected to transform life in the 21st century, the global community has a responsibility to set guidelines that will protect and enhance children’s rights for the next 30 years.

As UNICEF and the Government of Sierra Leone explore the many compelling reasons to use AI for children’s development (such as education, health and social welfare), there are concerns about unchecked technology use; from the internet to Artificial intelligence and beyond. When policies and guidelines are not in place for safer internet use, new threats and harm are introduced to the lives of children, including cyberbullying, trolling and illegal movements of children. Sierra Leone is taking these issues head-on even as the government embraces technology and innovation.

“Participating in the AI Child’s Rights Workshop was meaningful to me because it taught me about the design decision that I should take to ensure that my technologies do not infringe on the rights of children,” said Kumba Musa, Data Scientist, Directorate of Science, Technology, and Innovation.

“Had it not been for the continued support of UNICEF Sierra Leone to DSTI we would have missed out on this monumental opportunity to learn and share best practices around the protection of children and Artificial Intelligence.”

The AI Child Rights workshop accomplished the following:

Built a consensus among stakeholders about the objectives of the initiative and key principles of the guidance.

Brainstormed how to move from policy to practice and what support tools are needed for different audiences – government, industry, and the UN – to implement the guidelines.

Generated ideas on multi-stakeholder policy engagement strategies for government, industry, and the UN to implement the guidelines.

Built a network of AI and child rights changemakers committed to support the cause.

UNICEF, in partnership with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Standards Association and in collaboration with the Berkman Klein Centre for Internet & Society, the World Economic Forum and other organisations will collaboratively develop the guidelines to help governments, corporations and UN agencies to protect and empower children in the age of AI.

“To have informed policy development around AI and Child rights, at a global level, allows us to continue to ensure the rights of the child are protected and considered for the next 30 years,” said Shane O’Connor, Technology for Development Specialist, UNICEF.

UNICEF and the Directorate of Science, Technology, and Innovation (DSTI) will continue to collaborate by way of knowledge exchange, and learning to strengthen the ecosystem around Science, Technology, and Innovation for Sierra Leone’s national development.

“The partnership between DSTI and UNICEF is enabling great strides to be taken in the use of Technology and Innovation to support our work for the children of Sierra Leone.”

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