Sierra Leone: Transforming the Country through Innovation

Developing a platform that will provide the government with up-to-date information and insights about schools and the quality of learning

Shane OConnor & Naroa Zurutuza
Isatu Conteh holds her son, 4-month-old James Kamara, in Maforay Village, in Safroko Limba Chiefdom, Bombali District
14 June 2019

“Science and technology is the bedrock for the development of any modern economy."

Julius Maada Bio, President of Sierra Leone

With these words President Bio laid the foundations for Sierra Leone’s Directorate of Science, Technology and Innovation (DSTI) during his speech at the State Opening Of Parliament in Sierra Leone. Housed in the Office of the President, the new Directorate sends a clear signal that the Government of Sierra Leone is committed to using technology and innovation to support the delivery of its ambitious Medium Term National Development Plan (2020-2023). The creation of the DSTI, along with the appointment of Dr. David Sengeh as the country’s first Chief Innovation Officer, has brought about a unique opportunity for a step change in how technology can support the development of Sierra Leone and its citizens.

UNICEF and DSTI teams at the DSTI building in Freetown, Sierra Leone
UNICEF Innovation/Palau Montava
UNICEF and DSTI teams at the DSTI building in Freetown, Sierra Leone

The UNICEF Sierra Leone Country Office (SLCO) and DSTI have begun a partnership to develop Government processes that support the use of data for effective decision making. SLCO has always been committed to innovation. The office has been an early adopter of technology, and has successfully  generated real time data and community insights to catalyse responsive and adaptive programming.


DSTI supports the different Ministries in their path towards better using science and technology to deliver their goals, and UNICEF SLCO and the headquarters-based UNICEF Office of Innovation are now involved from the design process onwards. The UNICEF Office of Innovation team has been conducting in-person missions to provide expertise, and is advising remotely on a regular basis. This focused support will continue to strengthen the partnership and ensure that the lives of women and children in Sierra Leone improve.


To drive the development and uptake of innovative technologies UNICEF and DSTI have developed two approaches: first, they will leverage partnerships with the private sector and share expertise. This approach, aligned with UNICEF’s Strategic Plan’s renewed focus on innovation and partnerships to reach and protect the rights of every child, will develop an ecosystem of partners that are able to use science- and technology-based solutions for development problems. Second, they will work with people in the Ministries and Agencies to develop user-driven solutions to their day to day problems.  


DSTI and UNICEF software teams during a two week workshop
UNICEF Innovation/Palau Montava
DSTI and UNICEF software teams during a two week workshop

For example, with the Government’s recently launched Free Quality School Education initiative being a national priority, a primary area of collaboration is the application of data science to improve the reach of free education to every child. The partnership is developing a data system that will provide to the Government up-to-date information and insights about schools and quality of learning. UNICEF has already begun already investing in Magicbox, an open-source platform for data science that can be leveraged for the Government of Sierra Leone without substantial extra investment.

The development of an interactive education data visualization platform prototype is an important first component in enabling better decisions to be made for school children. The prototype allows decision makers at the Ministry to access data from multiple  sources that they can filter, visualize, and learn from. For DSTI, this is a first step towards having a fully integrated education analytics platform that will include data dashboards and customized user-defined interfaces; for UNICEF,  framed within a larger initiative called Project Connect around mapping schools and connectivity, this is another step towards providing quality education to children in Sierra Leone.

In the future, UNICEF and DSTI will collaborate on a range of technologically innovative ventures to improve the lives of women and children across the country. UNICEF is exploring opportunities to generate insights using machine learning based on this platform. This work will be pioneering: it will uncover whether a machine can determine which critical factors contribute to children’s learning the most by analysing Sierra Leone’s education data from the first ever digital school census data collected last year. Machine learning techniques may also help the Government to evaluate which parts of the country will require more investment, and in which area. This could include forecasts on maintenance costs, teacher allocation, and textbook distribution among others.

A picture of a drone set to fly to film area photographs after devastating floods hit Malawi’s capital city, Lilongwe, early February 2019
A picture of a drone set to fly to film area photographs after devastating floods hit Malawi’s capital city, Lilongwe, early February 2019.

In the next few months UNICEF and the Government of Sierra Leone, through DSTI and the Ministry of Transport and Aviation, will establish a drone corridor for the development and testing of drones. UNICEF has invested in the development of drone corridors around the world, including in Malawi, Kazakhstan, and Vanuatu. Drones can rapidly deliver supplies like vaccines or blood to inaccessible areas quickly; capture images of areas affected by natural disasters; and deliver communications connectivity. These solutions could provide urgent services to women and children in Sierra Leone.

DSTI’s creation has catalysed an environment in Sierra Leone that is excited about innovation and pushing the boundaries of technology. UNICEF Sierra Leone will capitalise on this momentum to continue to strengthen the technology and innovation ecosystems across the country, with the support of the UNICEF global Generation Unlimited and UPSHIFT programs.  A major focus will be put on supporting Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education; vocational skills development in technology related fields; and fostering innovation and social entrepreneurship as a method for solving local problems, locally. UNICEF SLCO is seeing technologies rapidly advancing at a faster speed, and this presents great opportunities. There’s a need to think out of the box -- with new ways of collaborating, and building sustainable solutions. Together UNICEF SLCO and DSTI aim to do just that.