A technology hub aimed to support new ways to tackle the challenges facing society is proving a hit in Sierra Leone.
Sensi Tech Hub (Sensi) grew out of Sensi’s SMS programme, a toll-free interactive SMS programme successfully run in response to the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone in 2014.
It was after the Ebola crisis in late 2015 that Morris Marah, Founder and Director of Sensi Tech Hub, decided to set up the hub and he launched it the following January.
Since then, Sensi has been providing young people, marginalised women and organisations with skills, resources and support to identify new ways to tackle the challenges facing society.
“We now run an open community space where technology and entrepreneurship intersect to help build the next generation of innovative solutions and businesses in Sierra Leone,” said Marah.
“The success of these solutions is driving social change and creating employment. Sensi is built on a highly collaborative and community-driven model.
“We facilitate the mentoring, skilling, generation of and exposure to novel ideas needed to foster a more innovative, technological, business and community driven solutions to the livelihoods challenges faced in Sierra Leone. Our approach is to always learn and evolve, so that we can constantly improve in the area we work in and create impact.
“My continuous interest and determination in developing experiences and education in the fields of international development, technology innovation, new media and business led to me studying for a BA in International Relations and New Media at Kingston University London.
“After completing my BA, I took on further post-graduate studies in International Conflict looking at the role ICT’s play in the developing world at the same university. Over the course of my career I have acquired valuable skills and experiences, working for a range of high level organisations in the humanitarian aid sector, development, new media, digital media, communications, research, video production, innovation and technology and business.
“I founded the Sensi Tech Hub project because I believed ICT’s and innovation can play a vital role in helping to combat poverty, enhance development effort, set foundations to develop a community of tech enthusiast and entrepreneurs that could contribute to development of the economy.
“My role here is to identify solutions, opportunities and possibilities that exist in the technology space and connect them to challenges and needs of currents effort to develop the country.
“Also, my understanding of Sierra Leone’s culture, politics and issues helps me steer the organisation through a localised approach in implementing our solutions and services on the ground.”
During the past two years, Sensi Tech has funded, Incubated or accelerated, trained and mentored 18 local entrepreneurs and businesses and has supported entrepreneurs and businesses with a US$167,000 grant coming through the Fire Starter Fund programme.
“We work to identify organisations and businesses which have the potential to upskill and empower youth to seek employment and to help them strengthen their management practices, processes and capacity so that they can support more youth in the future to find jobs,” added Marah.
“We do this through the provision of small grants, physical and virtual spaces for collaboration, training in organisational development and for individual staff members, access to technology resources, equipment and mentorship.
“This support has led to the creation of job for over 6,000 young people in Sierra Leone directly and indirectly.
“Sensi has also provided financial, administrative and technical support for dozens of CBOs and social impact projects. Last year, Sensi organised and hosted over 50 tech, entrepreneurship and creative events with over 2, 000 attendees. Currently, Sensi has around 150 active members, 50 to 100 daily users of the hub and deliver over 100 hours of ICT and business-related training per month to young people.”
Sensi has also successfully organised and hosted the Sierra Leone edition of the hackathon with 100 participants from various health, risk communication, tech, journalistic and entrepreneurship backgrounds.
“Sensi is scheduled to organise and host the Guinean, Liberian and Nigerian editions of the hackathon later this year,” added Morah.
“In addition, Sensi is one of British Council 25 West African Creative Hubs Cohort members along with creative hubs from Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal.
“Going forward, Sensi aims to continue running its current services and programme. Sensi plans to focus on funding more viable and sustainable tech and female lead startups and existing businesses with great invested outlook through the Firestarter Fund. Sensi also plan to develop more sustainable relationships with existing and new local and international partners that drives our mission and vision.
“Furthermore, in line with our sustainable development plan, Sensi plans to grow and strengthen Its ICT solution consultancy services to limit dependency on donor funding, scale as a business, grow our reserves, improve quality and delivery of services and open our options to do business and operations in Sierra Leone and beyond.”
Sensi’s work involves a wide range of technology, including digital literacy training which teaches young people basic and advance ICT, Photoshop, graphic design and coding.
“Through our tech solution consultancy service, we’ve developed tech tools including a SMS messaging systems, data portals, mobile apps, websites and crowdfunding platforms,” said Marah.
“Sensi provides training in ICT, business and entrepreneurships while our events are diverse ranging from Law Clinics, Show and Tell Open interaction nights for entrepreneurs, tech meetups and hackathons.”
Marah believes Sensi’s main objective has been to address the issue of youth unemployment in the country and has been providing access to capital, skills training in ICT, entrepreneurship and business, professional development activities and events, Internet, co-working space, work and networking opportunities for young people in Sierra Leone.
However, he believes Sierra Leone has a long way to go in building the digital divide and becoming a technology advanced nation.
“The country lacks much of the infrastructure that is needed to drive technological advancement. Political will in driving this change in the last government was also lacking,” said Marah.
“With the new Government they have few promises in their political manifesto to transform the technology space, and we have started to see signs this.”
“From our perspective and the work, we have been doing in Sierra Leone over the past two years, we have seen a big change in how the culture is changing around technology. The transformation that is happening in Sierra Leone around technology is cultural, the shift that has taken place in people having access to basic devices like mobiles, tablets and laptops – has created an appetite for knowledge about technology – this is the generation of people we are dealing with hungry for the knowledge to learn about tech and the opportunities and possibilities it presents them.
“There are two main universities with a technology faculty that have over 2,000 students, there are about 10 vocational training institutions with roughly 200 to 500 students studying technology – slowly feeding the hunger for knowledge.
“The private sector space is growing too – with the cultural change comes the need for businesses and organisations working the country to adapt.
“So we are seeing a wave of new businesses that are being launched to serve this demand.
“For Sierra Leone to go forward in this space, it requires the political will to drive investment in infrastructure and education in the technology space. The private sector community working in this space needs to invest more in building the ecosystem for technology rather than exploiting it. There are very few entities in town investing time in ecosystem building activities which is where the commitment needs to be to drive that energy that will create the industry – that will ultimately bring economic and social change.”