How technology can help reboot Ebola-free Sierra Leone

The World Health Organization has declared that Sierra Leone is now Ebola-free.

Story highlights

  • Sierra Leone has been declared Ebola-free by the World Health Organization
  • Morris Marah is launching Sierra Leone's first technology hub in Freetown
  • The hub's founders believe that technology can help rebuild the private sector

(CNN)Morris Marah was working in the Sierra Leonean High Commission in London when the devastating Ebola outbreak struck his country last year.

Desperate to help, he went home; first to volunteer in a community health center, then by applying his technology skills to build an SMS-based platform that disseminated weekly information and advice on how to avoid contracting the disease to more than 500,000 people.
    "I felt, sitting in London there wasn't much I could do from that far away. I wanted desperately to come out here and see how I could be useful," he says over the phone from the capital, Freetown.
    Working on that platform, called Sensi, and on other public health initiatives demonstrated how successfully technology could be leveraged for social good, and inspired him to look for ways to bring the country's small, but talented, tech community together to help restart the country's stalled economy.
    "Sierra Leone is a unique country, and a very resilient one. They've been through a civil war and bounced back. They've been through an unimaginable public health crisis, and I'm sure they'll bounce back from that," Marah says.

    Waiting for the all-clear

    The new Sensi Technology Innovation Hub hopes to help the country rebuild after its Ebola crisis
    This week, as the country held its breath in anticipation of being declared free of the disease, Marah is launching the first technology innovation hub, the Sensi Tech Hub, in Freetown.
    "We can help contribute by shaping the platform that will exist to enable young businesses to get visibility, that will enable young programmers to innovate... to enable young entrepreneurs, young designers and inventors to have that maker space that they can go to and get advice and get linked to mentors. ," he says.
    "We're just going to fill that gap that we believe is missing in the country — that one space that everyone can look at to innovate and build towards the future."
    The World Health Organization declared Sierra Leone Ebola-free on Saturday 7 November, after the country went 42 days without a new case of the virus.
    As the outbreak finally comes to an end, the country needs to develop its private sector in order to become sustainable and cut its dependence on foreign aid money.
    "I think about 60% of the economy is aid, and the private sector is very weak here. It needs to get a lot stronger, to grow in the long term. The application of technology is one means by which that can happen," says James Gubb, Sensi's chief operating officer, who has to contend with regular power cuts and an often shaky internet connection to get the hub off the ground.

    Economic crisis

    A view of the Sensi Technology Innovation Hub in Freetown, Sierra Leone
    Before the Ebola crisis struck, Sierra Leone had largely escaped the shadow of its decade-long civil war, which finally ended in 2002. Although it still scored very low on human development indicators, the country's economy had been growing at pace, driven by investments in infrastructure -- mostly designed to access its large reserves of iron ore -- and by an improving climate for business, which attracted companies from around West Africa.
    In 2012 and 2013, the economy expanded by 15.2% and 20.1%, respectively. Ebola snapped that growth spurt. Alongside the enormous human cost of the disease, the economy suffered as investors canceled trips, ships were unable to dock at port and people stayed away from public areas, cutting trade. Growth in 2014 slid back to 6.0%, and this year the economy is likely to contract sharply.
    Rapid growth is necessary if the country is to move its young population out of poverty. More than 50% of Sierra Leoneans lived below the international poverty line before the crisis; creating secure and productive jobs will be a vital component of their country's next recovery.
    Sensi's founders hope that the small tech community could be part of the solution, if they are given the space and the networks to succeed.
    "There are definitely people around, who are often self-taught, who are coding in their back rooms and in internet cafes and so forth -- wherever they can get access to good internet. I wouldn't say it's hugely widespread, but there is certainly ... an emerging group of young people who are inspired by tech," Gubb says.
    Although he admits they need to be realistic about how far and fast the hub can develop, Gubb believes there is considerable potential for the entrepreneurs that will meet and network at Sensi.
    "Sierra Leone is quite a small country. That creates opportunities," he says. "If you can network into the right areas then there is potential, both to grow businesses and to provide tech solutions to businesses that exist here."

    Long-term potential

    The Sensi Hub is partly funded by the U.K.-based Indigo Foundation, which has supported tech hubs around Africa. Loren Treisman, the foundation's executive, says that she sees Sensi as a long-term investment in the country's development -- and that while the process of building a community takes time, it often pays off.
    "I think we have to recognize that building capacity does take time and, initially, we should be thinking about can we build a tech community where people are collaborating, sharing ideas and networking. We've often found that when we put a space like this into a country, then the people like Microsoft, Google, Facebook become interested," she says.
    "The best solutions for Sierra Leone will be devised locally. We think that the only way to do this is to build a local tech ecosystem so that people can solve problems and social challenges."