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The Optimist

Sengeh visits Bill Gates

"Changing what impossible means" in Sierra Leone through innovation

“Trailblazer” comes to mind when describing Moinina David Sengeh. This May, President Julius Maada Bio appointed Sengeh as Sierra Leone’s first-ever Chief Innovation Officer, at the age of 31. The role was specially created by President Bio, to leverage Sengeh’s technology expertise to tackle large, country-wide priorities.

In his twenties, Sengeh led a research initiative at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, focused on using 3-D printing technology to develop better prosthetic limbs. His impressive resume also includes delivering a 2014 TED that has more than 760,000 views, and being named to Forbes' 30 under 30 in Technology, aged 26.

Sengeh visited the Gates Foundation earlier this month in preparation for the foundation’s Goalkeepers event in New York City this September.


The first Chief Innovation Officer on the African continent

Sengeh says that he’s always thrived in uncharted territory, particularly at the intersection of multiple fields; “medicine, technology, and research.” He’s already chalked up experience in academic research and the private sector—he was at IBM Research before his appointment—and now he’s excited to work in the public sector.

As he settles into his first few months in his new role, he tells The Optimist that he’s still “innovating” on what it means to be the first Chief Innovation Officer of his country. “This is really a commitment around centralizing a national agenda, around how we transform our country through a concerted technical effort,” he says.

“In Sierra Leone, we are looking at how we use the Office of the President and the Directorate of Science, Technology, and Innovation, which I lead, to drive our four focus areas, including citizen engagement and feedback,” he says.

Freetown-based Sengeh says central to his role is understanding how to use data to empower country-wide decision-making. With his team, he is focused on, “how do we provide decision-makers in the public sector with near-real-time analytical and visualization tools to help them make decisions? How do we support other ministries, departments, and agencies to build systems and solutions that cut across sectors, that put citizens at the front of it?”

His eyes light up noticeably when he talks about how he’s also focused on developing innovation and an entrepreneurial ecosystem. Sengeh wants to leverage his position to “support the network of researchers and scientists and data scientists and people who are trying to make things happen while doing the impossible.”

In fact, he’s been passionate about cultivating entrepreneurial talent for over a decade, since he founded Innovate Salone, a competition and mentorship program for Sierra Leone’s entrepreneurial youth to develop their ideas.

He too, found his life’s passion from the age of seven, when he would accompany his uncle, a general surgeon, into the operation theater to observe surgeries. “I don't feel like there is a moment in which I discovered health. I just was always in the space of health and healthcare,” he says. Marrying that early interest in health with the possibility of new technology has been a common theme across Sengeh’s career to date.

One priority he’s particularly excited about right now? Supporting the development of e-gov policies, where his uniquely intersectional lens is crucial. “The realities of e-health which [are often less considered] are around data security, data encryption, data sharing, and access. Those are technical things that we should be thinking about and that we will try to make be present now in such a policy,” he says about e-health specifically.

“In health, particularly, it's about mitigating risk. It's about protecting the patient, It's about accessing the right set of data, the right amount of data and who gets to access it and the frameworks for that aren't necessarily always clear or available.”

Facilitating intersections in global health and development

Sengeh now grapples with “the biggest challenge and opportunity—[connecting] the experts in silos in the development sector.”

“For example, tax experts know what it means to measure houses and, unique households. Maybe there are streets, but informal open locations, you don't really know where people live. That’s important for a tax person, but that's also important for a vaccine—for somebody who is in public health trying to track people for vaccines, who are completing their vaccines or being proactive in terms of interventions.” he says.

However, he’s optimistic about cutting through those silos in his new role. One way, he says, is through developing an universal and automated integrated addressing system that would use satellite imagery and existing technology that already provides unique identifiers to grids of species around the world.

“If we're able to link that with [existing] structures and figure out ways to incentivize people to extract that information and offer it back to government for different services, then we kill multiple birds with the same stone—for taxes, for health, for education,” he adds.

“So, when we think about technology as a platform and as a framework, the opportunity for impact, not just in health, becomes much broader and becomes much more interesting, and becomes cheaper, because this investment need not come from just one sector that doesn't have money...but that everybody's going to benefit. So, how do you get some contribution from each sector?”

Bill Gates and Moinina David Sengeh

That’s one way he’s working on “changing what impossible means” in Sierra Leone, a nation that has been plagued with challenges including a decade-long civil war and Ebola outbreaks in 2014 and 2016.

Another approach he’s considering is to capitalize on Artificial Intelligence (A.I.). “Everybody thinks about A.I., and you either love A.I. or you hate A.I.,” he says.

Sengeh, who sits squarely in the ‘loves-A.I.’ camp, says that “in health, the potential impact of A.I. is just tremendous, in terms of helping community health workers get at better decisions quicker, in terms of helping experts who are really good at their work to also get at better decisions quicker, and to see more patients, and have a lot more impact.”

Being a Goalkeeper

As Sengeh gears up for his upcoming Goalkeepers session, he identifies Sustainable Development Goals 4, 8 and 9—around education, economic growth, and innovation and instructure, respectively, as the key priorities for his government.

“I've always been biased around which global goals I've been thinking about,” he confesses. “But now in my role as the CIO of Sierra Leone, all of them matter, certainly.”

“My role really is to think about how—and which technologies we can use—to help Sierra Leone meet the goals that really are affecting citizens tomorrow,” he adds.

“Because there's urgency, too. And as a Goalkeeper, my priority for myself and for the teams that I engage with, is to make sure that we are making commitments that we can deliver on quickly, in a measurable way."

About the Author

Ruchika Tulshyan
Ruchika Tulshyan is an author, educator, and journalist. Her writing has appeared in publications including Harvard Business Review, Forbes, and The Seattle Times.

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