“Why are you talking about data? Our children are poor, they can’t eat data.” This is just one of the many instances of the pushback that Dr David Sengeh, Minister of Basic and Senior Secondary Education and Chief Innovation Officer for the Directorate of Science, Technology and Innovation first got from the public of Sierra Leone when he introduced the idea of a Chief Innovation Officer for the Government. People didn’t immediately understand how the topics of technology and the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) apply to problems facing most Africans today. These days, evidence and data are the bedrock of all debates around governance he says.
Sengeh was the latest guest of the Distinguished Guest Speaker series and gave a talk on Data-Driven Policy-Making. He believes in including young people at the highest levels of decision-making, noting how he had hired two university students as his very first employees in the Directorate of Science, Technology & Innovation unit that he set up.
“A lot of what has driven my work is giving young people the right set of skills and opportunities and the platform to be at the table because they can transform the country,” he said. “We need to equip them with the right skills, data and opportunity to express themselves. I am setting up a youth advisory group to advise everything that education ministry does. Young people must be at the highest tables when it comes to education service delivery.”
Bringing data and innovation into government policy
As his government’s Chief Innovation Officer, he is the chief advisor on how technological solutions can be used to meet Sierra Leone’s most pressing problems. He said, “We must use data to solve our education problems. It is data and evidence that we must use to address our health problems. It is being applied across the board to solve our problems.”
One of the systems that his team built is known as 468 (or GOV on a cellphone keypad), which delivers key public information to the public free of charge via any mobile phone. This includes basic information like public holidays, which was previously not easily obtainable. The system now means families can instantly know what their children’s school results are so they can start planning the future without having to wait for weeks to find out.
Sengeh shared how in his role as education minister, he innovates and fights for the rights of all children to go to school. “One of the things we’ve been able to do is the radical inclusion policy, which means we stop at nothing until every child can go to school,” he said. “There are four groups that we focus on: pregnant girls, kids with disabilities and special needs, kids in poor and hard-to-reach areas.”
How Sengeh drove ‘radical inclusion’ in Sierra Leone’s education
Thanks to the radical inclusion policy, a ban on pregnant girls attending school has now been completely reversed. He also launched the Education Innovation Challenge after learning that for a period of four years, not a single high schooler from his hometown region of Pujehun had obtained good enough grades for university. Today, that $1.5 million fund has grown into the $18 million Education Outcomes Fund.
Prior to his appointment as Sierra Leone’s Chief Innovation Minister and Education Minister, he was with IBM (in Nairobi and Johannesburg), applying data analytics to questions of public health. He holds an undergraduate degree in Biomedical Engineering from Harvard University. He also completed a PhD at MIT’s Media Lab with research focused on improving the comfort and ease-of-manufacture of prosthetic limbs. He also has passions in music production and fashion design.