Africa benefits from biometrics as an identifier

June 20, 2016 - 

This is a guest post by David Gerulski, VP at Integrated Biometrics

The recent ID4Africa forum in Kigali, Rwanda was as exciting as it was insightful, with a buzz surrounding new technologies for launching digital ID systems throughout the continent. For mobile biometrics specifically, what is going on in Africa is truly a case of technology rising to meet the demands of a populace.

The push for biometrics in Africa accelerated in September 2015, when world leaders adopted the United Nations (UN) 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This ambitious agenda included 17 sustainable development goals and 169 associated targets. Goal 16 is to, “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels” with subset 16.9, “By 2030, provide legal identity for all, including birth registration.”

Africa is proving to be “ground zero” for initial near-misses and eventual successes in the quest to provide legal identity to its citizens. While every African country had increasing population and economic growth, they had no concrete information on who their people were, unlike developed countries which had centuries of experience registering their populations. They would have to find a way to enroll every citizen, both young and old, in national databases, whether they were living in cities or remote rural villages.

Electronic fingerprint biometric devices provided a solution.

In the years prior to the UN’s sustainable development push, some African nations had actually already begun modest attempts at biometric censuses of their populations, which were accompanied by failure. The African environment proved challenging for the capture of biometric data, and early fingerprint capture devices were often unreliable, required an excess of power, and did not work in direct sunlight or dusty conditions, all common on the continent.

Although the challenges were daunting, biometrics nonetheless provided a new beginning for Africa.

With the adoption of the UN plan (and financial backing from the World Bank), the multiple stakeholders throughout Africa were able to make progress in the responsible planning and adoption of digital ID management programs. Once citizens were enrolled in such programs, they could then access government programs in healthcare, microfinance, banking and voting.

Simply put, the ability to create registries and enroll citizens would allow Africa to count its people, acknowledge their existence, empower them and care for their needs.

New technologies emerged in the mobile biometrics marketplace, addressing Africa’s challenging environment which required a reduction in the size, weight and power requirements while demanding better overall results. Officials were now able to travel to remote villages, traversing jungles, swamps, and desert terrain without being weighed-down by heavy biometric enrollment equipment and the batteries required to power them. New lighter more energy efficient “kit” devices and mobile handheld verification scanners could now function outdoors, in bright sunlight, in dusty conditions without the need to continually clean fingers or the scanner surface.

Electronic identity enrollment and verification began to take off throughout Africa, continuing to the present day.

The recent presidential election in Nigeria was a watershed moment; thanks to the use of biometrics to verify voter identity, the losing candidate was unable to argue that there were irregularities in the election. The potential for civil disruption due to questions of fraud in the election were negated, peace was maintained, and the threat of civil war was avoided. Had Nigeria “blown up” as it did with unrest after the 2011 elections or widespread violence following the widely disputed 2007 election, it would have wiped out an estimated two-to-three percent of its gross domestic product. Thus, the initial cost of enrolling the voting population was minimal compared to the potential for civil unrest and the costs associated with it.

The use of biometrics in Africa continues to spread beyond voting, banking, and government programs, in new and unique ways. For example, the Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi is engaging in a ground-breaking pilot program to record the identities of newborn infants at risk of exposure to HIV. Using electronic fingerprint scanners, healthcare providers are building records of baseline evaluations of each child, mother, or caregiver at risk of HIV exposure. After enrolling and verifying subjects, officials are following-up with them over a period of months, collecting fingerprints during each visit and comparing them to previous ones for re-identification. Insights from the study will be used in planning for designing a potential roll-out of a scalable National biometric unique identifier system for HIV-exposed infant, mother, and caregiver follow-up treatments.

Across the board, the use of biometrics as an identifier is having a positive effect across the African continent. More specifically mobile biometrics is enabling citizens to be better represented in the outcomes of their lives, whether its voter count, healthcare opportunities or receiving social services that are meant for the specific individual. As Navin R. Johnson once said, “I am somebody.”

It’s good to be somebody.

DISCLAIMER: BiometricUpdate.com blogs are submitted content. The views expressed in this blog are that of the author, and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BiometricUpdate.com.

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About David Gerulski

David Gerulski is a threat identification expert experienced in behaviorial recognition, IT and physical security systems and biometrics. A world traveler and adventurer, he once broke TransAmericas World Record for the fastest motorcycle journey from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to Ushuaia, Argentina.