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Jun 19, 2024, 9:57am EDT
africa

Sierra Leone bets on $150 million digital hub strategy

Sierra Leone Ministry of Communications, Technology and Innovation
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The Scoop

Sierra Leone is seeking to raise up to $150 million to roll out a far reaching digital innovation hub strategy led by a new Tech City and covers everything from job creation and training to entrepreneurship and supporting inbound investment.

The new policy approach, which is overseen by the technology and innovation minister Salima Bah, is intended to position the West African country as an incubation hub for innovators attracting talent from across the sub-region as well as within the country, she told Semafor Africa in an interview.

“We really want to play the role of being a home for innovative ideas in the very early stages, in the hopes that we create an environment that would allow [entrepreneurs] to thrive,” said Bah.

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The Tech City will sit within a 130-acre special economic zone in Tikonko, Bo District in the middle of the country about 250 kilometers east of the capital Freetown. It is being adapted to support startups and innovators, according to the minister. She said the country’s small size — with a GDP of just under $4 billion in 2023 and population of 8.7 million — could allow it to adapt quicker in a fast-changing environment.

The new digital policy push is being supported by private players including local telecoms companies Africell and Orange Sierra Leone as well as early grant backing from development financial institutions. Africell has committed to building a data center in Tech City as part of the project which will be open to third parties, according to Africell Sierra Leone head, Shadi Gerjawi.

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Know More

Sierra Leone Ministry of Communications, Technology and Innovation

The early stages of the plan, which is still being finalized by the government, were rolled out last week at the three-day Sierra Leone Tech Summit in Freetown which was attended by some 4,000 delegates. President Julius Maada Bio, who was in attendance, gave his support behind the strategy unveiling plans including a $50 million digital transformation to modernize the country’s digital infrastructure and promote digital literacy.

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A key part of the Tech City strategy involves securing commitments from companies to set up facilities within the zone including data centers and tech schools. But there’s a particular early focus on job creation via opening business process outsourcing centers with 10,000 to 15,000 computer seats and factories with device assembly lines.

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Yinka’s view

The rise of tech hubs across Africa over the last decade and a half hasn’t included Sierra Leone as a major center of innovation. But as one of the minister’s consultants, Oswald Osaretin Guobadia, told me, if the country can get the right digital policy in place as laid out in a six-point plan. That plan focuses on how to “attract, thrive, and retain” entrepreneurs and established businesses. It could spark a digital-led transformation for the country which could have wider economic impact particularly when it comes to both the creation of jobs and the creation of talent. Guobadia was previously a senior special assistant on digital transformation for the Nigerian president, so he is familiar with the impact of policy on a country’s tech ambitions.

Of course none of this is straightforward just because a policymaker has a compelling vision. Sierra Leone is effectively making a number of bets. Firstly, the government has to hope enough startups and founders from cities like Lagos and Accra will come over to join Freetown’s fledgling startup scene to create the kind of critical mass which will in turn catch the attention of angel and venture investors. But those startups will not just need money, they’ll be hoping to find local talent who can help them grow their businesses. It’s not clear Sierra Leone will have that in sufficient numbers for a while.

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One of the ways Bah and her team will be hoping this works is that it’s part of a wider plan for Sierra Leone to tackle ‘ease of doing business’ and key infrastructure targets, meaning everything from work visas and lower taxes to reliable, fast internet and steady electricity. Bah acknowledges that these are challenges that need to be addressed and was a big part of the thinking for a Tech City in the first place.

“While the government is trying to solve the electricity problem countrywide, we do know we can solve it within this designated zone,” Bah told me.

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The View From Sherbro Island

Hollywood movie star Idris Elba, whose father hails from Sierra Leone, has announced plans to turn Sherbro Island — off the coast of Sierra Leone — into an eco-friendly smart city. Earlier this year, insurer Lloyds of London said it would take a role in the project. It added that Sherbro Alliance Partners, the company run by Elba and his business partner, was putting together feasibility studies with Sierra Leone’s government. Sherbro is expected to focus on creative industries and innovative projects.

Bah said that Elba’s project would not be in conflict with the Tech City plans. Instead, she said, there would be opportunities for the developments to complement each other and avoid driving up costs by duplicating efforts.

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