Author: Sylvester Johnson & Abass Shaw, iDT Labs

“Finding a job is a full time job” depicts the cloud that existed between job seekers and job opportunities in Sierra Leone. This challenging scenario occurred in an economy experiencing spiral growth driven by the mining boom, agriculture and service sectors. Consequently, a plethora of jobs were created. Despite the plethora of jobs, 70% youths were either unemployed or underemployed (UNDP, 2010) with an estimated 800,000 youths actively searching for a job.

Before We Came In

In order to connect with jobs, youths had to travel long distances to get access to job information centralized in Freetown. Some migrated to mining areas where they could access job information or constantly gave calls to friends and family members having access to thinly circulated newspapers. Libraries with daily newspapers were often jam packed with graduates hunting for job information.

Apparently, jobs were mainly advertised via word of mouth and newspapers. Whereas the distribution ambit of jobs advertised via word of mouth was very narrow, only a minority of Sierra Leoneans read newspapers of which most are predominantly in the Western area. This factor deprived a large proportion of job seekers the ability to access job information.
Whilst the access to job information was puzzling, the cost of attaining job information was frustrating. The average income job seekers had to buy series of newspapers to access job information. The worst case scenario was experienced by poor job seekers, often in the majority, who resigned to faith and became non-active job seekers. This scenario created barriers to thousands of job seekers.
Employers on another hand were left with the no option to but advertise on daily newspapers. Using traditional media, employers mainly received applications from people that were no way near qualified for their positions. Without knowledge of the applications that meets the set requirement, employers had to go through each and every application to ensure that the ideal candidate is not missed. And that was a frustrating and tiresome task that often leads to some employers seeking foreign expatriates. In most cases, there were qualified Sierra Leoneans abroad being deprived of job opportunities home as job vacancies were only given a local audience.
From stories narrated from both sides of the coin, Job seekers & Employers, revealed there were both job opportunities and qualified candidates in the labor market; the reason for the seeming lack of both, we discovered, was in-existence of a centralized environment wherein both job-seekers and employers can fulfill their search requirements.

When We Came In

In response this scenario, we developed a centralized platform for job information. powers innovative and low-cost ways in bringing job-seekers and employers together. Making use of technological models like the Internet, WAP, and SMS, lowered the search cost and barrier to information for both job-seekers and employers, providing basic labor market information to them and a centralized meeting point wherein the two groups can interact. Sierra Leonean jobseekers around the world the first time had the opportunity to register and upload their Resumes and certificates, apply to job vacancies online and were contacted by potential employers. With over 10,000 followers and an average of 15 new jobs posted weekly, is Sierra Leones biggest job search engine.

Small and medium size enterprises constitute the backbone of the Sierra Leonean economy. SMEs generate jobs, they underpin service delivery whilst greatly impacting GDP growth. They are active in every sector, from retailing to services, healthcare and finance etc. They are in large cities, small towns, and even the most remote villages in the countryside, where they engage in a wide range of agricultural activities. Often stated by the Common Sierra Leone, the most remote communities have a Fula Shop.

Current state

Despite their centrality to the lifeblood of the Sierra Leonean economy, a significant number of SMEs continue to use manual methods in managing their sales, inventory, accounts, etc. They have books to record their finances, sales and inventory. A few sought to using basic applications like Excel, though a step in the right direction, they are vulnerable to duplicated data, limited queries capabilities and intelligence mining, weak business control and poor coordination in managing their business processes. This often leads to corresponding scenarios affecting their efficiency, productivity and competitiveness. Undertaking the Human Centered Design Approach, we recorded the story of a business man who narrated the difficulty he is facing to understand sales turnover. This business man often imports over 50 Containers of goods that are sold annually for which profits accrued he finds very discouraging. Highlighting the problems often faced, he further mentioned “as we approach the zakat (alms giving to the poor in Islam), I often find it difficult to evaluate to know the amount I should offer”

Several ICT companies in Sierra Leone provide Enterprise Resource Planning Software, Accounting and Human Resource packages with pricing beginning from $10,000 and climbing, effectively keeping them from the reach of all but companies in the big three, Mining, Mobile Network Operators, and Banks. As such SMEs cannot realize the intelligence, accountability and efficiency gained by computerizing their business processes.

Our direction

To help enable SMEs we have developed the iDT Cloud Software Service a SAAS offering enabling SMEs by providing access to high-powered mission critical software. This service gives SMEs access to accounting, human resource, warehouse management, fleet management and Point of Sale services via the cloud. With our new direction, in seconds, SMEs can have access to these software services, paying small monthly fees whilst also avoiding the significant upfront and

Author: Salton Massally, CTO, iDT Labs

West Africans generally associate open-source software that is freely available to use and modify as being inferior to commercial alternatives. This is a consequence of both their lack of understanding of the open-source model of software development, and a general consensus that whatever is free is usually of little or no value, as is the case with most commodities in West Africa. Compared to normal users, the governments in the region are even more distrustful of open-source software, since they erroneously believe that the closed nature of commercial software offers them increased security.

While we were planning on digitization of hazard payments to Ebola Response Workers (ERW) in Sierra Leone, which was a project funded by UNDP, some of the major criteria set forth to us were as follows:

  1. The solution had to be relatively inexpensive
  2. There was great emphasis on quick development of the system; we had two weeks to plan, develop, and deploy the system
  3. The solution had to be stable considering the consequences of major downtime or data corruption

With these criteria in our minds, we set out evaluating open-source projects that would not only help us to meet them, but would also be responsive enough for our functional requirements.

Naturally, realizing that finding a ready-made holistic solution meeting all of our specifications was improbable, we divided our scope and evaluated various options against these:

  • A Core database to house ERW records, generate pay lists, and to record payment history and payment issues.
  • An SMS interface through which alerts and status updates could be sent to ERWs and queries received and processed from them.
  • Deduplication of ERW records based on their profile
  • Deduplication of ERW records based on facial recognition
  • A process for field based data collection

Odoo, formerly known as OpenERP, is a suite of open-source enterprise management applications that easily emerged as the best fit for our core database requirements. It’s major attraction was the ease with which one could develop addons, while its large user base and browser-based user interface made it even more appealing. With Odoo and its PostgreSQL database engine forming the core of our solution, it was relatively simple to develop our extensions, with its webservice architecture integration with external components via its excellent XML-RPC interface being fairly straightforward. Another advantage was that Odoo already had a human resource addon whose design was not far away from what we wanted.

For SMS communications with the system, we decided on using the robust Kannel SMS gateway. We already had extensive experience with Kannel and so didn’t experience the configuration nightmare that first-time users typically go through.

Data Deduplication was to be an integral part of the system. With tens of thousands of record supplied to us via excel spreadsheets, we had to properly plan for a considerable amount of duplications in the records. Deduplicating data was particularly tricky because of the unlimited ways a person’s data can be represented. No convention existed for recording ERW data and so there was an absence of important fields like names, telephone numbers, address etc that we could use to deduplicate our dataset. Factor in the possibility of spelling mistakes and largely incomplete data, and the magnitude of the deduplication nightmare increased. For this problem of extracting, matching and resolving entity we had to turn to machine learning, natural language processing and statistical techniques. This ruled out using the power of postgresql alone as relational databases are not meant to handle complex entity resolutions. Instead, we turned to yet another open-source project, Dedupe.

Initially we flirted with using elasticsearch, an open-source search engine.However we quickly realized that this solution would take much more than the two weeks we had, so we settled with Dedupe, a python library that uses machine learning to quickly perform de-duplication and entity resolution on structured data. After adding some custom code, we got it firing exactly the way we wanted it to.

Deduplication using the passport pictures of ERWs, when available, was done with the help of OpenBR and OpenCV, a facial recognition library and computer vision project respectively.

A requirement of the project was the ability for data to be collected in the field using smartphones. For this we leveraged the excellent Open Data Kit project (ODK), a suite of tools that allows data collection using mobile devices and data submission to an online server, even without an internet connection or mobile carrier service at the time of data collection.

Adopting open source projects in our solution ensured that we finished well within our rather stringent timeframe and budget, putting together a robust solution that would have taken us years to develop if we were to do it from scratch. The works of thousands of excellent programmers in the open-source space ensured that Sierra Leone effectively and efficiently solved what was the most complex and easily volatile aspect of the Ebola response, the distribution of hazard payment. The only component we had to pay directly for was the SSL certificate used to secure communication with the server.

Seeing how successfully open source software was deployed in our context we hope to see this ideology embraced by West Africans. With billions of dollars being wasted by both Governments and the International Development Community operating in our sub-region on low-quality, non-functional software shelved after few months due to poor quality or low user adoption, it is imperative that we turn to the open source landscape for our software requirements. The billions being poured into commercial software licensing can easily be redirected at more pressing needs, such as poverty alleviation, HIV and Malaria prevention, to name a few.