Three years ago, David Sengeh, PhD candidate at the MIT Media Lab, reached out to me to share his vision to inspire a generation of Sierra Leonean youth to make positive change in their communities. The catalyst for this generational shift would be hosting a senior secondary school innovation competition modeled off of the MIT IDEAS Global Challenge.
Three years later, Innovate Salone has made significant strides towards that vision by starting inChallenges, a high school innovation competition, in Sierra Leone and expanding that model to South Africa and Kenya. Early on, inChallenges gained a lot of public exposure through a heavily watched YouTube video of the student Kelvin Doe. This year, in Sierra Leone, they also launched inLabs as a physical space for young people and the greater community to learn, make and do in a Freetown high school
Having volunteered with Innovate Salone for three years, I was excited to have the opportunity to see how Innovate Salone is perceived in Sierra Leone and to gain a greater understanding of how the program fits into the Sierra Leonean context.
This summer, with support from the Community Service Fund, a Rodwin Fellowship, and Public Service Center Grant, I spent two and a half weeks in Sierra Leone working with Innovate Salone. My goal was to review and evaluate the current inChallenges’ model to understand what works well and what could be changed.
I was able to work closely with the Innovate Salone team and travel to each of the four district headquarters throughout Sierra Leone. I met with teachers, students and principals at 18 schools – roughly 36% of the over 50 schools that work with inChallenges. I also met with individuals from the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Science and Technology, and UNICEF, that is helping to revamp Sierra Leone’s first grade through eighth grade curriculum.
The travel and the meetings provided insights into the Sierra Leonean culture, the environmental and social context, and people’s experiences with inChallenges. While I still have a lot to learn, the trip gave me vital insights that were only possible through travel and volunteering.
At the end of my time in Sierra Leone, I shared my recommendations for future changes for inChallenges:
For Innovate Salone:
- Clarify the goal of inChallenges
- Develop the community; develop the ideas
- Clearly communicate inChallenges
Sierra Leone is a small country; the entire population is roughly equal to the population of Washington D.C. A civil war ravaged the country from 1991 to 2002; 50,000 people died in the war and more than two million people were displaced. Infrastructure was destroyed. Schools were closed in many regions. Trust between communities was ruined.
Many people say the country is still trying to achieve its pre-war reality. Several people suggested the civil war and aftermath of NGOs and foreign aid flooding into Sierra Leone instilled a sense of dependency on external aid, and thus crippled anyone’s desire to change their community themselves.
Sierra Leone has come a long way since its civil war. It’s a relatively peaceful country; it is a model for religious tolerance. Yet, there are many factors at work that limit the country from a greater development. Environmental degradation, limited employment opportunities, gender inequality, corruption, poor public education system, and health challenges such as malaria and the current Ebola virus all threaten Sierra Leone.
The population is young; one third of the population is 15 – 35 years of age. The UNDP estimates that 70% of youth are unemployed or underemployed. Innovate Salone’s inChallenges was designed to respond to these various factors by challenging young people to develop solutions to their local problems. The hope is by encouraging young people to be creative, be involved in their communities and develop new solutions; Sierra Leone would start to evolve through the leadership of the youth.
inChallenges is an annual competition where student teams throughout the country have a chance to enter their ideas for their community to win funding and support. 150 teams in over 50 schools apply each year. Applications show a range of ideas and team experience. For example, teams have developed ideas like: a locally made clothing dye that substantially decreases the cost to produce clothing; a peer-to-peer support group for women students to clarify and correct rumors about topics like sex, pregnancy, and menstrual periods; and radios made by recycling batteries.
A handful of teams submit solutions like, “the government or a philanthropic organization should fund the expenses to keep kids in school.” While this may be a reasonable expectation, Innovate Salone aims to encourage young people to be more active in the problem solving. Teams who base their solutions on funding alone are encouraged to develop solutions that they can help lead and implement.
I spoke with over 60 students about their interest in inChallenges and their work to date. Overall, students were excited about entering inChallenges. For many students, inChallenges is one of the few, if not the only, opportunity for students to be creative and to apply their education to real-world issues.
Education in Sierra Leone is largely based on rote learning. Science, for example, is taught not through hands-on experiments but through copying diagrams onto notebook paper. Students are dissuaded from questioning authority; they’re not allowed to experiment, fail and try again. This environment in combination with a general lack of educational resources limits students’ ability to engage with their education and to develop the skills needed to enable them to open more doors in the future.
Students want to be involved in their communities, whether at the family, school, neighborhood, city, district or national level. Students care a lot about their communities. Their applications provide an insight into how they see the world.
Several teams of students were frustrated by the regular deforestation, disease and pollution. Students were also often concerned about their fellow students. Many students drop out due to abuse by their teachers (flogging), teenage pregnancy, teacher absence, and inability to afford school fees, even at public schools. The UNDP estimates that only “9.5% of adult women have reached a secondary education or higher compared to 20% of their male counterparts.” Several teams developed solutions to encourage students to stay in school through developing funding for school fees, raising awareness of teenage pregnancy or through encouraging parents to keep track of and encourage student attendance at school.
The students’ concern for their communities was moving; it struck me that inspiring students to be active in their communities is just as, if not more, important than identifying the most innovative ideas.
Meeting young people who were working to save trees and their country from deforestation, design the next Freetown out of paper, and build electrical pumping machines for wells, was inspiring. Several young people said they wouldn’t do what they’re doing if it haden’t been for Innovate Salone.