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Taking biometric ID from rumors to government service delivery in Kenya

Taking biometric ID from rumors to government service delivery in Kenya

Kenya’s national ID project Huduma Namba was a topic of much discussion at ID4Africa 2019 in Johannesburg, South Africa. The largest civil registration drive planned for the year in Africa received attention for its success in reaching large numbers of people, and also for the lack of a data protection law to guard Kenya’s people and government from the security and privacy problems that have plagued identity systems around the world.

The upper and lower legislative houses each have a separate data protection bill before them, and it is widely hoped one (or a combination of the two) will be enacted this year. By then the public’s first impressions of the new model of digital government service delivery in Kenya will likely have been formed. Kenya Ministry of Information, Communication & Technology State Department of ICT Director of Shared Services Robert Mugo spoke with Biometric Update following the lively debates that concluded ID4Africa 2019, and shortly after the registration of 37.7 million people in 52 days, which he calls a great success.

Mugo explains that the torrent of negative views expressed around the launch of the Huduma Namba registration drive eventually helped the program to succeed. “The funny thing is that a lot of the misinformation worked for us,” he says. Rumors circulated that the ID system was associated with the ‘number of the beast’ from the Book of Revelation, or that DNA samples would be taken and used to separate families. These bizarre claims appear to have depressed the registration drive’s early turn-out, but, Mugo points out, “they say no publicity is bad publicity.”

Public dialogue gave the government opportunities to communicate the facts of the project, and over time led to a major change.

“So in every home, in every street people were talking about this particular project, and people were then able to take a rational view, and ask themselves for example ‘is it practical to take DNA samples and store DNA and all that?’ So the controversy brought awareness, and then people were able to take the information that the government was talking about and clarify, and make sense of it.”

Pilot projects also demonstrated the benign nature of registration, with fingerprints and photographs collected, but not DNA, and accurate information filtered through society. Public interest evolved into public motivation, and registration lineups become longer.

Now Kenya is running a ‘Rapid Results Initiative’, as it has done several times in the past for different projects, to assess its Huduma Namba progress and take the next steps towards making the identification system universal. The government will work to provide Kenyans below 18 years old with birth certificates, and an accelerated process for those above 18 will allow them to be registered in the system, with their biometric data enrolled, even if they do not have the documents required to complete the Huduma Namba process, Mugo explains.

“They may not have completed the process, but they’ll still be in the system, and over time we can then figure out how to sort them out.”

The government has dedicated workers and resources to agencies to adjudicate these more challenging cases, and resolve them, adding information as it becomes available.

Huduma Namba is part of a broad development plan being carried out by Kenya. The plan is based on the pillars of food security, affordable housing, health care, and manufacturing, and initiatives to support each pillar depend on verifiable, unique ID. The government plans to lay approximately 9,000km of fibre optic cable throughout the country to link different service delivery offices, enabling them to take advantage of the new system.

Registration for Huduma Namba enrolls Kenyans in a universal health care scheme. An affordable housing scheme will rely on Huduma Namba to identify qualifying families, and to make sure that each family only receives one subsidized home. The government will also use the system to target farm subsidies.

“We’re then able to uniquely identify them, and ensure that those subsidies go to those farmers, and once they have produced, we’re able to buy back that produce, and make sure that they’re able to get the benefit of that work,” Mugo explains.

Another striking feature of the plan is for Kenya to begin building its own biometric devices, such as terminals for end-users to be identified at service delivery points. Assembly plants in Nairobi and Eldoret will make the devices to leverage and strengthen the country’s manufacturing capacity.

On top of the role Huduma Namba plays in enabling these social development programs, there are the many traditional benefits associated with civil registries, according to Mugo.

“We want to make sure that dead people are not transacting, buying or selling cars or transacting financially, we can prevent identity theft, national security is going to be very important,” he says. “There are so many benefits that we expect to come from this. Also at the back end, with the efficiency of government systems.”

Mugo is optimistic that with an advanced digital identity ecosystem, Kenya can decrease the cost, while improving the coverage of government service delivery.

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