Africa proves tough but fertile ground for BioRugged biometrics
“It will be an interesting 2021. This year for us has been – and we’re really lucky in this – a tremendously successful year. We’ve grown by a factor of five. That’s due to the tremendous success of our partners,” says Arnd Langguth, CEO of BioRugged to Biometric Update over videoconferencing about their relationship with their clients.
With sub-Saharan Africa as the ultimate testbed in terms of range of projects and terrains, new products are being developed for other parts of the world as well as across more sectors in existing markets.
“The experience we gain in Africa helps us a lot in Latin America. They want rugged biometrics and to see it’s field-proof. They want to see that you have experience producing kits that are carried through a whole country in Africa. That experience counts in Latin America as well,” says Langguth, who recently joined BioRugged from Genkey.
The firm is converting feedback into R&D and working with solar panel and battery manufacturers in China to improve the efficiency of kits which is already paying off, according to Langguth: “This year, due to a new development on our side, solar really becomes a usable and sustainable energy source for these type of enrolment kits.” Three projects in West and Central Africa have run off solar this year.
Unlike other companies in the field, BioRugged is seeing a shift from private sector work to government projects. “It’s a bit untypical,” says Langguth, “Due to the fact we had so many devices in the field for the private sector for KYC, people started to approach us for government projects.” The scale of potential budgets seems to have cemented this change of direction. “We have a few KYC customers in Africa that are a nice revenue scheme, but one government project will equalize that.”
Knowledge of conditions on the ground, developing products to match and building logistics networks for certain projects has helped the firm win projects in entirely new sector. In an as yet unnamed country, the company was approached during the pandemic to provide biometric hardware and software solution for remote education. The company launched a second product line, Serenity Tech, for the education market.
Their work with private enterprises, governments and international organizations in Africa informs design which then finds its way to their other markets.
“Africa is setting the bar for what can be done with biometrics. For example, the Ghana voter registration had very high visibility, the Tanzanian national ID project and voter registration had very high visibility,” says Langguth. “People start to notice that almost all election projects in Africa now have some kind of biometrics. This year we supplied to four election projects and one was in Latin America.”
Despite disputed election results in Africa, Arnd Langguth does not believe that there will be any weariness or wariness for biometric voting systems as they enforce the fundamental principle of one man, one vote.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had some impact on what people want from biometric devices. Usage has changed, but fundamental issues of trust remain. “With COVID-19 people are talking about not touching things, but in Africa and Latin America, in the projects we’re currently running, people want to disinfect hands and the scanners, but the actual use of fingerprints is not disputed because people understand why they’re being used.”
The different kinds of requests coming from partner companies means during COVID-19 provide ever richer details for future adaptation. BioRugged is developing biometric screening systems for border crossings at land borders. It has also launched a device which can capture or verify fingerprints, face and documents and be held in one hand. This is based on the need for the police and military to be able to have the other hand free to defend themselves.
“We need to see what will come up in 2021 because obviously government funding will be limited due to all the extra efforts in 2020,” says Langguth on the possibility of the taps being turned off, or at least down on the lucrative projects. But all is not lost as the company still sees potential in its other revenue streams.
“We do see that we’ll have more traction, more demand in the private sector – in smaller devices, authentication devices – the ability to spread authentication against the central directory all over the country.” As countries from Liberia to Tanzania bring central databases online, there could be plenty of scope for helping services and businesses verify against them.
Many of the projects that have led to the firm’s growth in 2020 were organized and financed in the pre-pandemic world. But Langguth is not fazed by the new world order. “I don’t see a general slowdown because of COVID-19 – it’ll just be a question of priorities. If a project will not come in 2021, it will certainly come in 2022.”
Langguth accepts that markets will reach a saturation point for some of the larger endeavours as they establish biometric repositories. But this will not mean the end of contracts if they keep abreast of all channels, as “with countries starting to reuse it, the focus will shift from the one big enrolment project to several small projects to keep your material and technology up to date and then we come back to the private sector whose KYC is being linked to it.”
And perhaps after that, it will be time for the next election. Liberia is even considering shortening its term lengths.