David Moinina Sengeh is not your typical education minister. The 34-year-old with a Ph.D. from MIT not only oversees the public schools in Sierra Leone, he's also the nation's chief innovation officer. And that's in addition to being a recording artist, a clothing designer and an inventor. A Ted Talk he gave about his innovative, computer-assisted technique to make personalized prosthetic limbs has garnered almost a million views.
Now Sengeh is on a mission to digitize government on a continent notorious for paper-laden bureaucracy and in a country where only a quarter of the population has access to electricity.
His efforts have been met with a fair amount of skepticism.
"In Sierra Leone and in many poor countries, the largest part of resistance that I got was, 'We are hungry and you tell us innovation,' " he says of early criticism of his drive to bring a digital revolution to Sierra Leone. "We don't have water, and you tell us, technology. There is no power. And you want us to think about science."
Sengeh talks in a calm, patient tone. He hears his critics but then insists that yes, he does wants to talk about the possibility of a Sierra Leonean space program.
"Someday we will send people to space," he says. "That's not where we are now. But we're looking at how we can use space technology or AI [artificial intelligence] or the mobile solutions to solve our immediate problems."
In his office at the Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education, Sengeh wears a black collarless shirt he designed himself. A gold embroidered strip stretches down his breastbone. His dreadlocks are tied behind his back.
"It took a long time for people to understand that actually, yes, you need science, technology and innovation to make sure you can eat better food and get more food and increase your yields," he says.
"And yes, you need better technology to make sure that you have water. And yes, you need better science and innovation to make sure you have better access to justice."
He says the key is to bring in digital solutions that solve the problems faced by Sierra Leoneans.
Sengeh pushed to make key info from the government website – like the national calendar so people know when offices are closed for holidays — available on a standard cell phone. Then it's accessible even to people who don't own a smart phone. And he's lobbied for digitizing what have been cumbersome public services.
"There's no reason why people need to come to Freetown to apply for a passport or to access for government services," he says. If technology can be leveraged to make government more effective, "we should use it," he says. "That's the vision."
For students his department launched a free dictionary available by text message. The word search works even on old-school cell phones in a country where the majority of people don't have smart phones.
Even though most of his 11,000 schools lack electricity, he's issuing tablets to administrators to track grades, teacher absenteeism and budgets. Sengeh argues that if the staff can figure out how to charge their cellphones every day, they'll manage to charge the tablets. "They'll figure it out with the solar solutions or mini-grids in their communities," he says. And a single tablet is just the beginning. He adds, "We also have a plan to have all of our schools be connected [to the internet]."
These innovative programs are being rolled out all across the country. Koidu in the east of the country is 5 ½ hours away from Freetown if you have a good car or a 4X4. It's a full day's journey by bus.
At a COVID vaccination site, health-care workers, police officers and support staff from the local hospital are getting their injections. They each get a blue cardboard COVID vaccination card to track which vaccine they got and when. Francis Lebbie, one of the vaccinators, fills out the card and an accompanying immunization form.
Lebbie notes each vaccination by hand in a thick paper ledger that looks like a large hotel guest registration book. Then he also enters each immunization into an app on an Android tablet.
"We use this [tablet] to tally the information, collect the information and send the information to national on a daily basis," Lebbie says.
At the end of the day, the data uploads over the cell phone network so officials at the ministry of health in the capital can tally how many people were vaccinated and how many doses of which vaccine were used. And more important for the individuals who got vaccinated: They get an official text message notifying them when they're fully vaccinated. COVID test results can also be sent out via text, saving people from having to travel potentially long distances back to a health clinic to get results.
These are the kinds of changes Sengeh is advocating as Sierra Leone's first Chief Innovation Officer.
But he's not just an innovator. He's a musician who connects with young people, and that's key to his appeal. Sierra Leone is a young nation. The median age is just under 20 years old.
The Minister of Education regularly raps and sings on tracks for local artists.
Perfoming with several other well-known Sierra Leonean musicians, he has a new album out called Love Notes to Salone. "Salone" is what Sierra Leoneans informally and affectionately call their country. He says he makes music in part because it brings him closer to youth. "And I invite young people to make music videos with me because I want them to imagine this will be our own future," he says. "And I want all the younger siblings to look up to them and see their work and think, wow, that's cool."
Sengeh grew up in Sierra Leone amid his country's brutal civil war. He later went to Harvard and eventually got a Ph.D. from MIT. He sees educating young Sierra Leoneans as the key to transforming Sierra Leone. Over the next decade, he wants his country to move from being one of the poorest countries in the world to a middle-income nation.
"That's not going to happen by taking small steps," he says. "In a world where there's cryptocurrency and quantum computing we can't be thinking classically anymore. We have to think quantum. We have to think outside the box."