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Mobile phones for legal identity, not just digital: ID4Africa livecast

Mobile usage reveals gender equality challenge for mobile ID
Mobile phones for legal identity, not just digital: ID4Africa livecast

Mobile phones as a tool, a technology and an enabler of services were discussed in the first part of a new four-part ID4Africa livecast series, ‘Mobile for Identity Management and Inclusive ID4D’. In the first installment, speakers explored how the mobile phone can support digital ID credentials to enable access to services and ecommerce, and how mobile phones are already playing a role in registering births to create a legal identity. A persistent gender imbalance among phone holders, poorly aligned regulation and even tax on mobile use could frustrate efforts.

Progress for mobile phones for ID credentials, stagnation for gender equality in Africa

The many benefits of mobile phones for development were discussed. User data also reveals some concerns.

Melle Tiel Groenestege, director of policy and advocacy at GSMA, explained how mobile internet was leading to greater labor market participation, broader employment options which have benefitted women more. One hundred and twenty million new mobile internet users are expected on the continent by 2025 when smartphones will make up 64 percent of handsets, up from 48 percent in 2020.

But while coverage by mobile network and mobile data has increased geographically, encompassing larger populations, usage has lacked. Fifty-three percent of people in sub-Saharan Africa who live in an area with mobile internet coverage do not use it. There are 800 million unconnected people in the region.

Only 1 percent of Kenya’s population is not covered by mobile internet, while only 31 percent of the population are connected, leaving a gap of 68 percent. In Togo the gap is 73 percent.

Mobile phone penetration correlates with certain measures of better gender equality and reduced child mortality, in part as women with mobile phones have access to information and are better placed to make decisions, according to a presentation by Professor Ridhi Kashyap, Department of Sociology and Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science, University of Oxford. However, her research and forecasting in Africa show that fewer women have mobile phones.

GSMA’s Groenestege backed this up with the organization’s data which show that sub-Saharan Africa persists in mobile internet gender disparity. Only South Asia comes anywhere close, but while the gender gap there almost halved from 2017 to 2020 with the rate dropping from 67 to 36 percent, in the same period the rate in sub-Saharan Africa has hovered between 36 and 38 percent.

If mobile phones are to hold digital credentials in wallets or digital ID for enabling greater access to finance and services, then the gender imbalance is a weakness in the foundation. This itself is in part due to fewer women having a legal ID which is increasingly necessary in order to obtain a SIM card in sub-Saharan Africa.

That reveals a great mutual benefit for identity, said Casey Torgusson of the World Bank, as the number of services that can be built on top of a mobile ID makes a mobile phone a better value proposition for people. Mobile identity could have a positive impact on the identity ecosystem.

Digital identity is a critical factor for advancing digital inclusion said Groenestege. Mobile operators in 157 countries have the requirement for knowing a user’s ID. This means that 40 percent of users do not have their phones in their own names; another challenge for mobile digital identity. Clearer benefits for financial inclusion and government services via a mobile ID could see more people correctly register their phones.

Mobile phones for legal identity

While mobile phones and identity may have a complex relationship for adults, the opposite could be true for newborns. Various international agencies as well as private companies are pioneering mobile phone-based birth notification and registration approaches, with an approach in Burkina Faso achieving 100 percent success in registering births in health facilities.

Bhaskar Mishra, child protection specialist at UNICEF, explained new mobile-based approaches that are intended to reduce the number of children in sub-Saharan Africa who lack proof of a legal identity – currently 67 percent among the under-fives and 71 percent in children under one year.

Poor access to processes, plus the complexity of the processes once accessed, and a general lack of demand are the main reasons for the low rates.

Mobile-based approaches can start long before birth. By being a part of antenatal care and information, mobile services can also be used to introduce birth registration as a concept to parents and then guide them through it after birth. They can even prompt parents to be ready with their documents and to choose a name.

UNICEF’s system then uses mobiles again for the notification and declaration of births as forms are photographed and sent to civil registries from health facilities, plus guidance throughout on birth declaration can be sent via SMS to parents.

Again, for validation, parents can send their own documents via mobile phone and then be guided through the final registration phase.

UNICEF’s SMS-based RapidPro birth registration system has been put to use in Senegal, according to a presentation by Khadidjatou Thiam, head of Vital Statistics at the Civil Registration Directorate. Another system developed by the NGO Aide et Action put village chiefs in charge of a slightly different SMS reporting system as trusted actors.

Burkina Faso’s iCivil system for mobile identity management was introduced to improve birth registration, and resources have been increased to tackle the situation that only 345,000 out of 800,000 births in 2018 were registered. A QR code containing a lifelong identifier code is printed on a wristband for newborn babies. The same code is printed on an ID card.

The code is scanned by a midwife with a dedicated app which opens up a form. The baby’s details are entered and then sent as encrypted SMS messages to the civil registry. Parents then take the card with QR code to the civil registry to complete registration and collect the certificate.

Where it has been used so far, it has achieved 100 percent registration of babies born in health facilities, explained Iness Toe Yameogo, director of Unique Identification and Security of Civil Registration Documents.

Private sector birth registration tech for legal ID

Representatives from WCC and DigiTech Development presented their solutions for mobile registration of births.

WCC takes a deliberately low-tech approach by creating a management system for civil registry staff. The system generates a visual workflow of birth notifications and contact details, populated by SMS, and allows the civil servant to make appointments with parents and track documentation.

It is intended for jurisdictions where face-to-face meetings are required for birth registration and where infrastructure barriers may prevent an approach requiring mobile internet or smartphones. The system works for other areas of government service and is currently in use at an as yet unspecified location in West Africa for health insurance registration.

DigiTech Development’s Be.Bound service specializes in detecting what level of mobile internet or cellular coverage is available. An Android app takes parents through a registration process and can use the mobile’s NFC reader to scan parents’ eID cards if available. The app then determines the best way to send the data to the central system from Wi-Fi to mobile internet, to a series of SMS messages.

The approach is currently being deployed for mobile birth registration in Côte d’Ivoire where 150 mobiles are in use by health workers in a project with ONECI, the national identity agency, which is issuing Semlex-made ID cards. The goal is to put at least ten thousand such phones into operation.

‘It’s the regulation, not the technology’

There was something of consensus throughout the presentations and discussions that broadly speaking, the technologies available and in place, along with infrastructure, are already of generally sufficient quality and reach to run various services and registrations.

Yet uneven regulation brought in piecemeal for different situations means ecommerce and even civil registration face tough and even contradictory regulatory landscapes.

Fiona Asonga from Tespok, a Kenyan technology service provider association, said there is a lack of clarity from government regulation. She said regulations clash and contradict each other. For example, when a mobile operator wants to verify a mobile ID, the data protection laws are stringent and fines severe but this comes up against unclear regulations, meaning the service providers are in a difficult place when handling identity data, to the extent that they are unsure of how to proceed.

The lack of collaboration is also found between government departments, which receive individual grants and introduce separate ICT systems with regulations. The regulators are then siloed, said Asonga, making it difficult for mobile service operators to work across projects from different departments.

Despite some progress, without a disruptive process, we are not going to reach the Strategic Development Goal for birth registration in Africa, warned Cornelius Williams, director of Child Protection at UNICEF.

Williams believe that a review of regulations and departments is needed, country by country. This needs to be done by governments and not UN agencies although 14 different agencies can support. Governments should use sandboxes to test technologies and approaches to determine better regulation.

Annina Wersun, from Open CRVS, said the fact that parents are required to have an ID number in order to register their child’s birth can automatically rule out up to half of all births being registered in some areas.

Simplification of processes and interfaces is also important. Tech projects fail because of the people, not the technology, said Wersun. People will struggle with overly long forms which means birth notifications may be covered by civil registers and vital statistics, but full registration by parents to give their children a legal identity will lag behind if the process is too complex. Service design can make legal identity more desirable.

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