Sierra Leone: Going Digital with Birth Registration

The arrest of Patrick Campbell with a sample of uranium hidden in his shoe at JFK Airport in New York on August 21, 2013, became a talking point, especially about how births are registered in Sierra Leone. A week after the incident, the Government of Sierra Leone issued a press release stating that Patrick Campbell was not a citizen even though he was using the country’s passport. The week long wait to establish Patrick’s real identity was partly linked to the paper-based nature of record keeping in the Births and Deaths Office.  

Sierra Leone is working on computerizing birth registration records to ensure every child has a birth certificate; and maintain a comprehensive database on births and deaths. The Human Dignity Foundation through Plan Ireland has committed $5 million over a five year period to the project. Part of the funding includes developing a software application that would network mobile phones and computers for the speedy transmission of birth registration information from remote communities to the Births and Deaths Office in Freetown.

Dr. Joseph Kandeh, chairman of the project task force and District Medical Officer of Freetown explained in an interview that registration centers will be established and registrars will be trained to use mobile devices to collect and transfer data.  The use of portable devices is projected to vastly increase the number of children issued with a birth certificate nationwide. 

 “The project is not unique to Sierra Leone as Plan International, in its quest for universal birth registration, is funding similar projects in Kenya and Liberia,” Cecilia Hanciles, coordinator Plan Sierra Leone, stated in an interview in the country’s capital Freetown.

The registration of births and deaths in Sierra Leone began in 1791 when the colonial secretary announced that all residents of Freetown and mountain villages, then referred to as the colony, should be registered. Since then record keeping in the Births and Death Office has been paper-based. During the 11-year war that ended in 2002, many records kept - especially those out of Freetown - were destroyed. “We have agreed to computerize but want it incorporated into the laws,” Dr. Kandeh explained. 

Limited ICT Capacity

The project still has a long way to go. At present the country’s ministry of health and sanitation is leading the birth registration task force, which includes Plan Sierra Leone, UNICEF, Christian Brothers, Births and Deaths Office (a unit of the Ministry of Health and Sanitation) and a local non-governmental organisation Heal Sierra Leone.

“The health ministry has an ICT directorate and we are of the opinion that this directorate could even develop it [the software app],” Dr. Kandeh said. But software development is beyond the expertise of the ministry’s ICT directorate staff for now, which means the task force is working on hiring a software developer to come-up with an appropriate app for the project. 

“Most of us are laymen in the field of ICT. So what we did, with the support of this project from Human Dignity Foundation Ireland through Plan Ireland and Plan Sierra Leone, was to hire a consultant to look at how we can computerize, what methods, and what ways we can use,” Dr. Kandeh confessed. “The consultancy group has already done its study and the draft is with us,” he continued.

As a first step, 32 people in the Births and Deaths office have been trained on basic computing and Microsoft office package. Before the training, many if not all of the trainees referred to themselves as BBC meaning Born-Before-Computer to describe how strange the computer was to them. An indigenous IT company Africa Information Technology Holdings (AITH) did the training.

“We still have a lot of people in the Births and Deaths office in Freetown, and in the regions also working as registrars who can’t work on a computer,” Dr. Kandeh said.  More staff will be trained and when the software application is ready, all of them will be trained on how to work with it. The ministry has stated that it will only employ people who are computer literate to deal with births and deaths henceforth.

Where Next?

The life span of the project is currently five years and only covers six districts. On top of which it is donor driven. To really make this work, the government needs to think in terms of funding the project and extending it to all the districts in the country. To achieve this, an ICT company specialized in software development would need to be contracted and a partnership with IT and mobile phone companies would need to be sought.  

Today there are still children whose births are undocumented and whose parents cannot remember their birthdays. Recording new births and making the information available will show the country’s appetite to embrace ICT to achieve its development objective. More importantly though, this initiative will highlight the right of children to carry a birth certificate and be protected from abuse.


Silas Gbandia is Producer of Citizen Radio Freetown


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Silas Gbandia

Silas Gbandia, Producer, Citizen Radio Freetown

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