Why Sierra Leone appointed a 31-year old MIT PhD as its first chief innovation officer

Freetown, Sierra Leone
Freetown, Sierra Leone
Image: Reuters/Afolabi Sotunde
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

For years, particularly over the last decade, African countries have championed the idea of solving the continent’s myriad of problems with innovation and innovative thinkers. Many governments have done this through the traditional approach of recruiting scientists and academics within government departments of “science and technology” or “ICT & innovation”.

While those approaches have had some successes depending on the country, few have walked the walk and tried to put innovation and innovative philosophy front and center of their government. One such government has been Rwanda which hosted this year’s Next Einstein Forum of scientists and mathematicians and launched an innovation fund of $100 million, with 30% of funding coming from the African Development Bank.

But Sierra Leone is taking it one step further by appointing its first chief innovation officer to head the Directorate of Science, Technology, and Innovation which has been newly created by the recently elected president Julius Maada Bio, 54.

What makes Moinina David Sengeh’s appointment markedly different is that he will be operating within the Office of the President, unlike like the others on the continent, which are locked into the traditional governance structure and slow-moving bureaucracy of government ministries.  “The directorate will facilitate and support a vibrant national innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem for both public and private sectors,” says a statement from the president’s office.

It’s perhaps the most ambitious attempt by one of the continent’s beleaguered nations to jumpstart its economy by elevating the role of innovation in its day to day dealings.

Sengeh, 31, studied at Harvard and MIT for his PhD where his thesis was about improving prosthetic comfort for amputees, a beneficial area of study as a citizen of a country where years of war left about 27,000 people disabled. At the time of his appointment, he was working with IBM Research Lab in Nairobi focusing on “the design and deployment of healthcare technologies in Africa.

He has also been involved with Innovate Salone, a social action project to nurture creativity and an entrepreneurial spirit among Sierra Leonean youths.

Sierra Leone is one of the world’s poorest countries, ranking 179th on the UN’s Human Development Index. The Ebola outbreak of 2014 and 2016 set back the marginal progress that had been made after the war and his expertise will be handy as the country rebuilds especially its health system. So, while this will not transform Sierra Leone into an innovation fortress overnight, it is a crucial step forward which should be emulated by others.