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Digital ID registration – an influential opportunity for mobile network operators


Biometrics and digital ID

African governments may want to exploit the business assets of mobile network operators and knowhow in registering users and handling their biometrics and other sensitive information, to realize larger digital ID projects which would empower economic growth, finds a report by the GSMA (Global System for Mobile Communications Association).

There are plenty of ambitions and goals for Africa’s digital future and plans for reaching them. There is the oft-repeated praise of the continent ‘leapfrogging’ development stages, such as going straight to mobiles then straight to mobile internet. But the lack of legal identities and documents is a potential long-term handicap.

The GSMA, which represents mobile operators worldwide, runs the GSMA Digital Identity Programme which plays “a key role in advocating and raising awareness of the opportunity of mobile-enabled digital identity and life-enhancing services.” The program has produced “Reimagining identity ecosystems in Sub-Saharan Africa with mobile,” a report into the identity and registration systems and challenges to digital ID schemes in four Sub-Saharan countries.

The report examines Benin, Ghana, Kenya and Uganda and finds that finds that in all four, there is an “appreciation of how proof of identity requirements can complement digital and financial inclusion efforts.” And therefore an opportunity for mobile network operators (MNOs). An increasing number of African governments are enforcing compulsory SIM registration, something often controversial and initially costly for operators, and more are strengthening Know Your Customer (KYC) vetting in financial situations.

“Partnerships between regulators and the mobile industry could offer an opportunity to improve efficiencies while reducing the burden of regulatory compliance,” states the report’s conclusion, “Mobile technology is uniquely positioned to enable secure and inclusive digital identity, and it is critical for service providers to keep this in mind when developing ID-linked services.”

MNOs with their networks and physical outlets could be the backbone of registration campaigns for digital identity schemes according to the report. The report considers metrics such as mobile penetration, reaching 109 percent in Kenya where 96 percent of the population is covered by networks.

The countries covered in the report show how relatively few operators span the continent, such as MTN and Airtel. Taking on the role of identity partners would give these companies – both GSMA members — huge clout.


In Benin, MNOs have expressed an interest in biometric authentication services and the World Bank is supporting a project to extend mobile coverage (around 69 percent of the population is covered) for reading biometric ID cards for access to services by the poor. The government’s efforts in deploying the cards themselves has faltered due to a lack of funding. Benin has also piloted the Smart Africa Trust Alliance’s (SATA) Digital Identity Initiative which aims for a pan-African ID, beyond regional blocs such as ECOWAS.


Ghana has the Ghana Card, a biometric ID scheme intended to harmonize the disparate ID schemes. There have been issues in obtaining cards such as the need to travel long distances, breakdowns of data capture systems and the poor quality of mobile networks. There have also been issues with data collection for SIM registration, but the requirements for real-name registration could push many more people to register their SIMs as part of acquiring full ID. Schemes such as Airtel Tigo’s mBirth program even facilitate registering a birth.


The ambitious and controversial Huduma Namba scheme to issue every Kenyan with a unique ID number has already registered more than half the population but there are problems in rural areas with poor network coverage. For compulsory SIM registration, there have been compliance issues with field agents.


Uganda has a registry system built with the support of UNICEF. A system uses a web app or simply USSD to register births and deaths in health facilities and villages. A national ID database allows for biometric cards and commercial access for KYC. The government is investigating a mobile ID platform which could be verified via SIM when registration with the newest ID, the NIN, is more widely adopted.

The growing importance the National ID Number in Uganda and therefore the potential role and opportunity for GSMA’s members summarizes the report more generally:

“Without [the NIN], citizens and residents cannot enjoy basic fundamental rights, access a range of services or fully participate in the digital world, exacerbating exclusion, inequality and discrimination, especially among underprivileged members of society.

“Given the challenges of creating digital IDs, particularly for populations with little knowledge of the benefits of identification or those who live in remote areas where mobile registration units are deployed, the business assets of MTN, Uganda Telkom, Africell and Airtel may be leveraged. In addition to providing outlets for registration, MNOs can help raise awareness of the benefits of identification and the life-enhancing services that IDs can unlock.”

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