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Africa’s digital ID authorities revisit strategy to build new enrollment models


Biometrics and digital ID

For a range of reasons, 2020 was set to be a big year in the development of digital identity systems in Africa backed by biometrics. Much of the expected progress was not realized, however, as enrollment projects and operational exercises were shut down to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The COVID-19 crisis, at least in 2020, was not the health care crisis expected in Africa, however, so ID4Africa Executive Chairman Dr. Joseph Atick tells Biometric Update in an interview that the digital ID needs of the response were therefore not really tied to healthcare. What the response did show, he says, is that countries did not know their populations well, did not have mechanisms to deliver assistance, and that the talk so far about digital transformation has been lip service. There is a real silver lining, though.

“Those lessons will serve as stimulus for developing political will,” Atick explains. “Any naysayers or people who were doubting the importance of digital and legal identity in Africa maybe will see in 2020 an example of the haves and have-nots, and will realize that they would not be able to sustain another period of crisis like that.”

He draws a contrast with India, where a country with a developing economy was able to deliver millions of cashless payments “fairly well” with capabilities it had already established.

Most countries in Africa could not possibly have achieved the same degree of success in delivery of government support, because, Atick says, the traditional approach to onboarding has been proven to be simply too slow.

“Classical models of onboarding where we’ve got these fixed bureaus and then the government invites people to come and takes data, and takes biometrics, and then deduplicates them, and takes six months and then gets back to them to deliver the credential — you just don’t have the luxury any more to do this type of thing,” he asserts.

The continent’s digital footprint does not yet support end-to-end digital onboarding on a Western-world model, and governments are not yet capable of providing the trust and data protection necessary to run successful identity ecosystems and protect sensitive data like biometrics. Government-run country-wide comprehensive registrations are also proving difficult to carry out with adequate scale and efficiency. Atick says the way forward is to include self-declaration, private sector registration, and all other available means, not just limiting identity record creation to the business of government.

“The business of government is to build trust,” Atick explains. “The business of the government is to attest. The business of government is to ensure validation for that identity, but I think we need a new model, and I’m hoping that in 2021 the identity management field in all developing countries will embrace the concept that any identity is a useful identity, but for it to become a good identity, it needs to have additional layers added to it.”

A new model for digital identity

ID4Africa intends to emphasize data protection and data-centric view of identity, Atick says, which brings in the “greyscale,” or recognition of digital identities with different degrees of assurance for applications with different trust requirements. Part of a data-centric view of identity is identity intelligence, which African governments have not yet adopted, but could theoretically begin utilizing in fairly short order.

Setting risk-based requirements could allow people with self or community-asserted identities to begin building up profiles, which could be linked to official government registrations in time and become much more enriched than identity “skeletons” of biometrics and basic biographic data.

The key is to protect this data, and ensure it works within an ecosystem, according to Atick. Governments can set the rules and certify actors within the ecosystem for the roles they perform. Identity authorities, rather than opening up physical presences in every area of their country, could play a role closer to the one that central banks play in the financial system.

This will help to enable the contributions of private sector players, as has happened in Nigeria with address checks and validations by VerifyMe.

Ultimately, Atick says, people give themselves identity through their interactions with others, and the government’s role is to ensure they are recognized appropriately (rather than grant identity, as such), which gives control to the individual.

The strategies being followed prior to COVID were going to run out of steam anyway, Atick suggests, but with the practical situation laid bare by the pandemic, he believes many governments and development agencies are reconsidering their approaches to identity management and development. One priority which has emerged for African governments is population registers, so they can at least know who help needs to reach.

Operational set-backs and strategy gains

“It’s been a catastrophic year from an operational point of view,” Atick states. “It’s been an excellent year for strategy, and recognition of the importance of digital identity, and understanding what we don’t have.”

People across Africa cannot wait for foundational ID, so social protection programs, private sector actors and others will launch their own identity systems to bring their services to the many people they can reach through only one channel; mobile devices.

In a year marked by widespread and dramatic disruptions to biometric enrollment and public registration programs, diversification of identity ecosystems could be a wise move anyway.

“To trust the identity management strategy of your entire nation to a single initiative is risky,” Atick notes.

The model, in which people come to a certain location and enroll their biometrics and biographical data, and then are deduplicated and eventually the list is accepted, is over, Atick says.

While government identity authorities across the continent now see what needs to be done, according to Atick, many appear only to see glimpses of how to carry it out.

“There is hesitation because anybody that has data is concerned that by collaborating, they could lose the value,” he observes. “They want to maintain control of the data. And it’s not just a data protection issue, it’s a power issue. It’s a territorial issue.”

In the place of an interoperable, widely available foundational identity that people can use to access services, functional identity will proliferate in 2021.

Smartphones to the rescue?

Functional digital ID initiatives carried out by social protection agencies or private sector companies to support their own services can include place-holders for the official ID, and seeded with it once the foundational ID system catches up, as Nigeria’s BVN system has been established.

Governments can also avail themselves of private sector partners like mobile network operators, who have already established networks to reach the most far-flung customers. They also have an incentive to work towards what Atick believes could be a game-changing tool for people in even remote areas to establish and use digital ID with the strong assurance of biometrics.

“There is a developmental value in promoting the introduction of smart phones in Africa,” Atick argues. “There are models today under a hundred dollars, and I’ve heard under 40 dollars that are Android phones, fully functional that could perform fairly well.  And I see development agencies spending billions of dollars on economic programs et cetera.  I urge them to collaborate with government to facilitate access to smartphones in Africa so that everybody in the adult population will have one.”

There are barriers to the ubiquitous dissemination of smartphones in Africa, as discussed in an ID4Africa livecast earlier this year. They include network and electricity availability, as well as the prohibitive cost of the devices themselves. Atick views these challenges as far from insoluble, however.

One possibility comes from another industry that has already brought high-tech hardware to many Africans who could not otherwise have afforded it. Pay-as-you-go models used by solar power providers could work for smartphones, particularly with devices specifically designed for African markets.

“They’re going to start offering smartphones,” Atick predicts of the solar companies.

The step from feature phones to smartphones would be equivalent to acquiring a digital identity at the same time, Atick believes.

What’s ahead for 2021

Even solar providers need to be able to identify their customers sufficiently to know they are good for the fees that over time pay off the infrastructure. Tax incentives could enable the same kind of move by them or MNOs to upgrade the continent’s IT infrastructure with personal devices.

Once they do, biometric authentication, digital payments and other applications will become available, which can help establish digital identity. Standards like the FIDO protocols can be implemented to upgrade data protection.

Even the suggestion may not have been viable before COVID, but now, facing a new challenge with its own timeline, it may be the way to finally achieve scale for digital identity in many countries.

“It feels like we already squandered five years, and we’re left with ten years on the clock,” Atick says. “If we’re going to continue to do the same thing that we’re doing, linearly, we’re not going to get there. And in the meantime, a lot of people are going to suffer by being prevented from participating in the opportunities that are available today.”

Any opportunity to interact with mobile network operators, fintechs or leasing companies could lead to the establishment of a useful digital ID, with utility that could be used elsewhere, if an effective ecosystem is established.

Tanzania provides an example of a program that was unpopular among participating businesses, but has resulted in giving the subscribers of eight different telecom operators a legal identity.

“We thought in the past that the electoral databases were going to be the boosters for identity. And we were wrong.”

Still, elections in Africa provided an important lesson in 2020, simply by going forward successfully (whether the tabulating of results was as successful notwithstanding).

“They were able to overcome because there was political will,” Atick notes. “Everything else got held up.”

Tanzania went from a weak digital identity ecosystem to a relatively strong one in less than a year, so if the same political will is applied to digital ID in 2021, a dramatic and rapid change for the better is possible.

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