How Augentic delivered Cameroon’s biometric passport project amid the pandemic
“Wow. The 48 hours deadline is truly respected. When it’s good, we should say it’s good. If government was respecting other engagements with citizens like is the case with the biometric passport, Cameroon would have been very far advanced in terms of development,” Kingsley Lasha, a journalist with Douala-based My Media Prime TV, quips to Biometric Update as he steps out of the passport production center in Cameroon’s economic capital.
Lasha is all smiles as he brandishes his third ever passport, which he confirms, he spent the least time to obtain. He says his experience in the previous two instances was nightmarish.
“Procuring my first and second passports was hell. For the first one, I waited two months, while it took me one month to lay hands on the second after paying extra money. This time around, I spent nothing additional. After my biometric capture, I was called exactly 48 hours after to go pick up my passport,” he further narrates.
Like Lasha, many other Cameroonians have been narrating similar blissful experiences about their passport procurement process, which wasn’t the case before now.
But thanks to a deal between Augentic and Cameroon’s General Delegation for National Security (DGSN), the long wait for passports by applicants in the central African nation appears to now be a thing of the past.
In this write-up, we delve into how the project was set up in the middle of a pandemic, how much money Augentic is investing in it, as well as the company’s future plans and perspectives.
Setting up the project
The production of the new generation of biometric passports officially went underway on July 1 with the first passports delivered to their owners the following day — within the 48-hour deadline.
It took just under a year for Augentic to get the project up and running, not only in Cameroon but also in all of the country’s diplomatic missions abroad.
For Chief Executive Officer Labinot Carreti, successfully setting up the project was more like a record for them not only because they had to implement it within a pandemic which greatly disrupted global business, but also because of the complexity of the infrastructure.
“We didn’t know from when we signed the contract in September 2020 that we would have a pandemic that would last so long. It was difficult because the pandemic closed lots of logistics space and supply chains around the world. We didn’t have many flights and movement of ships in terms of cargo transport,” Carreti told Biometric Update in an exclusive interview.
This situation, he said, made the company adapt in order to get things done. “We were able to bring in most of our materials through the limited available flights. I will say what we have achieved is almost like a record. The system is unique and I am proud of it. It’s really amazing considering the fact that we had just about eight months of active work.”
Apart from the pandemic, the Augentic CEO said they faced no other major constraints. Conversely, he said they got the best of collaboration from Cameroonian authorities who were so “motivated” to see the passport infrastructure in place.
“I must say I was amazed at the motivation and assistance we had from all the institutions and government of Cameroon. They had an interest in the project and wanted to see the building of an infrastructure that will serve the best interest of the Cameroonian people,” Carreti noted.
Apart from teams from the DGSN, he also reports a very positive working relationship with other stakeholders such as the Ministry of Lands, which wasted no time in making land available to the DGSN for the construction of the 4,000 square-meter national passport production center in Yaounde, as well as for the other centers in Douala and Garoua.
Winning the Cameroon contract
Like many such mega contracts, bidding for the Cameroon biometric project was said to be an open process. What gave Augentic the edge over other bidders was its experience in the business as well as their strategic partnership with INCM, the State printer of Portugal.
“Together with our partner INCM…which has a long experience in the printing of ID documents, we combined our best expertise to give Cameroon the best possible solution. I think we were unique in our offering when it came to investment in the country, and not just getting money out of the country.”
52 million euros investment
Agreed to run for 10 years based on the Build-Operate-Transfer system, Augentic says it is making a total investment of about €52 million (approximately XAF 31 billion, or US$61 million).
The investment, the CEO explained, will be in two rounds, the first of which has already been done to the tune of about 31 million euros (roughly XAF 20 billion, or $36 million).
“The first investment was used to set up the global solution infrastructure, construct three buildings and renovate seven regional passport application centres. More precisely, the first building we invested in is the national centre for passport production in Yaounde which you have seen. It has 16 enrollment stations plus a VIP section. It also hosts brand new offices, server rooms, data centres and other critical infrastructure,” the CEO told Biometric Update.
“For the second and third building, we are doing the same in Douala and Garoua, with appropriate sizes and enough capacity for expected enrollment in these cities. In the seven other regions, we are completely renovating existing buildings and equipment. Our wish is to see that when Cameroonians get into these offices, they get the services they deserve,” he added.
Talking about the second round of the investment, Carreti said: “We have committed, on our end, to perform another investment in order to renew the entire solution in the ninth year before the Transfer. The government will not inherit any old infrastructure. Everything including machines will be in a brand new state. So, we are talking about a total investment of about 52 million euros for both phases of the project.
System security and data privacy
For projects such as this one, one of the issues that quickly comes to mind is the security of the system and well as the privacy of the data of passport applicants collected. Carreti told Biometric Update the system was securely built, and also spoke about a recent incident in which a fake prototype website was put up by cyber criminals with the aim of defrauding online passport applicants.
“We are not worried about our system; we are just worried that some citizens of Cameroon may not pay attention to the website they are visiting. They just have to be more vigilant and use the official website for application which is www.passcam.cm or go through the official DGSN website where they can be redirected to the application portal,” he stated.
On personal data, the CEO noted: “All data collected is in Cameroon and is not to be exploited outside DGSN. The passport system security is based on the highest international standards. The data centers (primary and secondary) are installed onsite in two different locations and all data is in the hands of the DGSN. Augentic doesn’t have access to personal data and so cannot exploit it in any way.”
What next for Augentic?
For Labinot Carreti, successfully starting off the Cameroon project is not just a big motivation for the company. He says it has also pricked interest from other governments that have been calling to express amazement and interest.
“Many governments have been contacting us to ask questions about the Cameroon project and expressing amazement about what we have done. Some of them say they are looking to start the groundwork to modernize their ID Infrastructure and we are working closely with them in selection of the technology and the right business model,” he disclosed.
Such interest, he says, has only inspired them to stick to their goal which to “…help governments in the digitization process because we know that it is not easy for any government to plan these kind of big budget projects.”
A new opportunity for Cameroonians
To Cameroonians who may still be reeling with anxiety over the new passport infrastructure, the Augentic CEO called on them not to shy away but to embrace the novelty.
“Cameroon has an extremely motivated young population and great people. It’s a beautiful country. I can only tell the citizens not to be afraid of digitalization; they should embrace it. It’s true that new processes may take some time to master, but I invite them to take advantage of our state-of-the-art service allowing us to produce a passport within 48 hours,” he appealed.
He added: “I’m proud to say that we have been producing passports within 24 hours lately, except in cases where there is a need for further validation of identity which is performed directly by DGSN. Together with my teams, we will do our best to see that Cameroonian citizens are served in the best way possible.”