Sierra Leone's Capital of Freetown Turned to Technology to Repair The Ravages of Civil War

Tim Mansel/Alamy Stock Photo

Few cities face the kind of challenges that Freetown faces. A city of 1 million and capital of the West African nation of Sierra Leone, Freetown endured a bloody civil war in the 1990s and continued rebel attacks through 2002, when the country established a stable government. The nation ranks near the bottom of the United Nations' Human Development Index, which gauges essential quality of life in 187 nations. More than half the country's residents live on less than $1.25 a day. Although Freetown is slightly richer, many residents live in slums, where they're exposed to floods and disease.

The national government has responded to these crushing problems with smart-city solutions. Last year, President Julius Maada Bio established the Directorate of Science, Technology and Innovation and appointed David Moinina Sengeh, a Harvard- and MIT-trained Ph.D. who developed a new system for attaching prosthetic limbs, to head up the chief innovation office.

Sengeh pioneered ambitious smart-city projects. He established an "education data hub" that gathers test scores from every school and correlates them with data on location, demographics, spending and policies. The data allow workers to track conditions that affect test scores and make changes to help schools that are lagging.

Sengeh's office has extended these data-collecting practices to health care, water access and government finances. It partnered with U.S. company Kiva to offer a micro-lending digital platform to help consumers and entrepreneurs establish a credit history—an important step in a nation where most residents lack access to the banking system. Kiva's platform relies on fingerprints and retinal scans to keep the data secure.

Now, the city is working on making portable DNA sequencers available to help law enforcement fight the high incidence of rape, and using drones to distribute medicines and emergency supplies to hard-to-reach areas.

These innovative measures prompted the experts on Newsweek's Momentum Awards Council to flag Freetown as a smart city to watch. As innovative as Sengeh and his colleagues are, they confront a difficult task. But they have made a hopeful start.

You can read here about the world's smartest city, Medellin, and also look at our individual winners here and here.