When I came to Sierre Leone for a New Years Eve visit, I didn’t plan to work from here. That was partially because I wanted to take time off and enjoy the visit more, but also because I was skeptical about Internet speeds being good enough for Google Meet, ssh (remote console) and such. Then, a Covid-related last-minute flight cancellation happened, and I was working-from-Freetown whether I planned for it or not.
Background: Sierra Leone in 2021/2022
Sierre Leone, the most circular country on Earth :), is not a popular tourist destination. In the last few decades it has been in the news mostly for bad reasons, including a violent civil war which ended in 2002 and an Ebola outbreak in 2014.
Today these challenges seem a distant past – over the course of two visits in 2021 I found Freetown to be a livable city with scenic views on the bay, full of friendly people and safe for visitors (if you ignore the risk of having a road accident while taking a motorbike taxi).
In the rest of the post I want to zoom in one the one question I got wrong before coming to Sierra Leone: is the Internet in Freetown good enough for remote work?
Three things most important for remote work: Internet, Internet and Internet
Most of the Internet you’ll see in the region is based on mobile/4G connection technology. This includes occasional WiFi hotspots in places such as restaurants or hotels, which (if they offer WiFi at all) typically use 4G WiFi routers such as this one from Orange . Cable broadband is rare if it exists at all.
The place I was staying at, like most private houses in Freetown, didn’t have WiFi, so the easiest options were:
- WiFi tethering of my phone mobile/4G connection, or
- getting a standalone 4G Wifi router
As this was a short-term stay, I went for WiFi tethering.
The two major 4G operators in Sierra Leone are Africell and Orange.
You can get a SIM card in the arrival hall at the Lungi airport (on my previous visit, there were only Orange representatives waiting in the hall with SIM cards, now on my second visit it was Africell only). If you don’t get it at the airport, you can buy the SIM card at Africell and Orange street booths – easy to find at every major junction in the city. In either case (airport or street booth) you need to show your passport to activate the SIM card under your name.
After you have a SIM card, you need to charge your account with credit/vouchers/airtime – this you can do in every other shop throughout town (and for that you don’t need to show your passport). Finally, once you get the credits, you can buy an Internet data bundle self-service using USSD codes (dial
*113# for Africell and
*800# for Orange) – these present a menu of bundles with the current prices.
Africell and Orange latency comparison
I ended up getting both Africell and Orange SIM cards over the weekend to compare them and see which would work better (for science!). I had anecdotally heard that while Africell had better range in remote areas, Orange performed better in cities, and I was curious to check this myself.
In my tests (running ping on a Macbook, using WiFi tethering from a Pixel 3 phone), the two were very comparable, with Orange appearing marginally faster:
❯ ping -c 50 google.com PING google.com (22.214.171.124): 56 data bytes 64 bytes from 126.96.36.199: icmp_seq=0 ttl=113 time=148.079 ms 64 bytes from 188.8.131.52: icmp_seq=1 ttl=113 time=134.662 ms 64 bytes from 184.108.40.206: icmp_seq=2 ttl=113 time=151.775 ms 64 bytes from 220.127.116.11: icmp_seq=3 ttl=113 time=148.439 ms 64 bytes from 18.104.22.168: icmp_seq=4 ttl=113 time=164.765 ms (snip) --- google.com ping statistics --- 50 packets transmitted, 50 packets received, 0.0% packet loss round-trip min/avg/max/stddev = 117.645/140.197/214.416/14.823 ms
❯ ping -c 50 google.com PING google.com (22.214.171.124): 56 data bytes 64 bytes from 126.96.36.199: icmp_seq=0 ttl=114 time=143.322 ms 64 bytes from 188.8.131.52: icmp_seq=1 ttl=114 time=136.661 ms 64 bytes from 184.108.40.206: icmp_seq=2 ttl=114 time=139.042 ms 64 bytes from 220.127.116.11: icmp_seq=3 ttl=114 time=122.329 ms 64 bytes from 18.104.22.168: icmp_seq=4 ttl=114 time=135.903 ms (snip) --- google.com ping statistics --- 50 packets transmitted, 50 packets received, 0.0% packet loss round-trip min/avg/max/stddev = 121.843/134.704/167.192/10.791 ms
And so I went with Orange, getting a 8GB data bundle which I figured would be good at least for the 1-2 days of remote work I got to do.
While I was more worried about latency (how long it takes for a message to get from my computer to a server outside West Africa and back) than bandwidth (how much data I can be sending or receiving in a unit of time), better to be safe than sorry. A run on speedtest.net did not disappoint (this is on Orange Sierra Leone, testing latency to an Orange server in Paris, France).
Having a normal workday
The only adjustment I did to my typical working routine was to disable the video streams in Google Meet calls – but this was purely to conserve the data bundle (so that I don’t need to run to a nearest shop to buy more credit), otherwise the video connection in short tests seemed pretty happy.
I worked about 8 hours on the first day, had 4x 30-minute meetings (including one with casting/presenting to the call), did some light coding, and ran a few commands remotely over ssh. Everything worked just fine, with just two minor issues:
- one time the audio quality during the call got bad to the point of making the conversation impossible. Putting the phone in airplane mode and back online resolved it
- one time the Internet connection on the laptop broke, but the phone still seemed to have Internet – rebooting the phone restored the laptop connection.
Both issues could really be with the WiFi hotspot on my phone – maybe this is where getting a dedicated 4G WiFi router would have helped.
On the first day I used 1300MiBs of network bandwidth. It seems that the 8GB Internet bundle I got should be enough for around 5 workdays. The bundle cost 125 000 SLL, which is around 9.84 euros / 11.10 dollars per week, or around 2 euros / 2.22 dollars per day.
I thought working remotely from Freetown would be hard to pull off, and I was wrong. A SIM card from one of the leading telecoms + data bundle + phone WiFi tethering worked pretty well for me during the 2 workdays I spent here. Next time I hope to stay for longer!