Over the last three years, our team has been working hand in hand with the government of Sierra Leone to enhance urban mobility in the capital city of Freetown, and to protect the local transport system against growing climate risk. This past year have been especially hard, with remote working, multiple virtual missions, and dramatic economic slow-down in Sierra Leone.
While the Integrated and Resilient Urban Mobility Project covers a wide range of infrastructure upgrades and service improvements, one key priority is to strengthen the capacity of local institutions to plan, operate, and manage transport over the long term. As part of this capacity-building effort, the project is supporting the civil engineering program of Freetown’s Fourah Bay College (FBC), the oldest university in West Africa.
Freetown was once known as the “Athens of West Africa”, the place where the brightest, most educated minds in the region came together to exchange ideas and shape the future of newly independent West African nations. Although FBC is understandably proud of that heritage, those days are long gone: when we visited, the facilities were in very bad conditions, many chairs and desks were broken, and power outages were a common occurrence. But perhaps the main concern for students is that most of them complete their education with little hope of finding a job. Employment rate among young graduates is heartbreaking, and many eventually take up jobs as minibus or motorcycle drivers, even with a degree in civil engineering.
In that context, the capacity-building component of our project can become a real win-win for FBC students and for their city. On the one hand, creating a local pool of qualified transport engineers is essential if we are to make a lasting impact on urban mobility in Freetown, and support a sustainable post-COVID recovery. Reciprocally, acquiring solid knowledge and skills in a high-demand sector like transport will open a variety of exciting job prospects for FBC graduates.
Since the beginning of the project, students have had several occasions to gain firsthand experience in urban transport. Some of them, for instance, contributed to the preparation of our project by taking part in innovative data collection and analysis activities conducted in Fall of 2018. In August, 2019, several students also participated in Freetown’s first Resilient Urban Mobility Hackathon .
Another opportunity came up through Understanding Risk, a conference series that focuses on disaster risk identification, and happens to be one of my favorite events. I was excited to find out that the regional edition of the conference was scheduled to take place in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, right when the new direct flight between Freetown and Abidjan started operating. It seemed like the perfect way to wrap up project preparation and our engagement with the students. We submitted a proposal to lead a session about innovation in urban transport resilience. The FBC students would present the lessons they learnt from the data collection exercise in Freetown, while the winning team of the summer hackathon (link to the blog) would pitch their idea to the wide international audience attending the event.
To everyone’s delight, our session got accepted! And just a few weeks before the pandemic hit, we traveled to Abidjan with a delegation of 19 Sierra Leone students. At the airport, we noticed that some of them were passing through security with a look of concern on their face, which reminded us of the significance of this trip: for most of these students, it was first time at an airport, first time flying on an airplane, first time traveling abroad, first time attending an international conference.
The journey to Abidjan might have been a little overwhelming, but it was all worth it! Understanding Risk participants embraced the students, and the students embraced everything the conference had to offer! They met other youth from West Africa, shared experiences, and learned more about risk management, innovation, transport planning and anything it came to them.
In this time of uncertainty and crisis, it has been important to remind ourselves that FBC students are a shining example of Africa’s potential, and we look forward to continuing our engagement with them. They are bright, resourceful, and eager to learn. Let's invest in their future and give them what they deserve: a university to be proud of, and the confidence to know that their academic achievements will translate into professional success.
These activities were funded by the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR) – Resilience to Climate Change.
Mr. Oba Davis, senior lecturer in the Civil Engineering Department at the Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone, contributed to this blog.