President Julius Maada Bio, on his visit to the 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, whether they are 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 honor 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 changemakers 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 heartwarming 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 were also topics on energy and the ease of Doing business,9 and I found the whole project very ambitious
DSTI Media:- As you are from an African country, why did you choose Sierra Leone?
Keith: So I wanted to gain experience working in Africa, and again, after talking to the delegation that came, they seemed very enthusiastic about the projects that they were working on, and they were 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 when 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 of the group seemed very enthusiastic, and I was hoping that was actually the case and that it wasn’t just a show that they were giving to us. And I think I found that 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, and 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 the data science and innovation teams 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, and it became really useful to me to get on board. And so many things we’re talking about, finding ways to do 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, which is one of the pillars of DSTI. Also, one of the things we wanted to do was 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; 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 is translated into policy for policymakers, when they use the information we provide them and 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 kilometers to go to school. If you’re to make a 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 about being part of such a contribution?
Keith:-I feel that it’s important work that I am contributing to, 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:– 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 in terms of technical skills, I think I gained a lot and improved 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, and 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 tech?
Keith:- My advice is to start now; there’s so much that can be done. If you have even the slightest idea or the simplest idea, bring it here. And those little things, when you build them up, help build your CV for future employers.