How Sierra Leone joined forces for national digital ID – ID4Africa livecast
The latest ID4Africa livecast examined the issues around social protection and how Sierra Leone planned and rolled out its digital foundational ID system and integrated it across government departments. The livecast, available on YouTube, also looked ahead to some of the workshops at the upcoming ID4Africa conference in Nairobi in May, which will focus on the creation of an electronic CRVS for the continent and data protection.
Sierra Leone’s digital ID
After phases of planning, legal frameworks and reform as well as public information, Sierra Leone’s national population register now covers more than 90 percent of the population, says Mohamed Massaquoi, director general of the National Civil Registration Authority (NCRA) and the country’s ID4Africa ambassador.
The success stems from creating a new umbrella organization for both identity management and civil registration. This brought in a central system and helped stem fragmentation in the market from multiple functional IDs.
The African Union’s Africa Programme for Accelerated Improvement of Civil Registration and Vital Statistics (APAI-CRVS) led Sierra Leone to draft and then adopt new civil registration laws which led to the formation of the NCRA to establish a foundational ID.
With help from various international agencies, the country developed a system that was bureaucratically ready in 2017, with the 2018 elections on the horizon. Voters were required to have a voter ID card.
The plan was for the NCRA and Electoral Commission Sierra Leone (ECSL) to collaborate and use the NCRA civil registry for extracting the electoral roll.
NCRA registration was soon focused on those of voting age: 18 and over. Following the elections, the work was broadened out.
Jusufu Swaray, director general at ECSL, explained how the two departments merged biometric registration equipment with 4,000 devices spread across 3,300 voting offices nationwide.
“The collaboration – it was not easy at the initial point to have the NCRA and the EC coming together at that particular time,” says Swaray, “Allowing the NCRA to do the voter registration was like taking their bread from them.”
There was a lot of back and forth between the departments, but then the government brought the two together. NCRA’s Massaquoi grins as his counterpart recounts the initial phases.
The resulting civil and voter registration has saved government resources and Swaray says the team was able to instil trust in the system among the political opposition. They ran live demos with sample databases and showed how a person cannot biometrically register twice undetected. “On the whole we have earned their trust and that is what has served ECSL up to this point.”
The National Telecommunications Authority (NaTCA, formerly a commission, NATCOM) helped by provide maps of network coverage and pushed out SMS blasts across mobile networks to tell people how to register.
Registration captures biometrics but also biographic details. Swaray explains that including information on disabilities is used to determine which polling stations should have ramps for wheelchair access.
The two departments have a fiber communications link, with individuals identified via a unique identifier. The NCRA pushes new registrations and the details of those who turn 18 across to the ECSL, and instructs it to remove citizens whose deaths have been recorded. Four hundred thousand individuals have been registered and pushed to the elections team so far.
ECSL has delimitation database – a copy of details from NCRA. It receives some biometric data as proof, but does not store it.
They hope the approach will be applied to link more departments.
The ECSL does not expect to be producing separate voter ID cards for 2028, says Swaray. The hope is that money saved here in card production, distribution and staffing could go towards reducing the recently-hiked US$5 cost of the biometric national ID card.
Basis for social protection
The foundation built by the NCRA is feeding into other areas of the national aim of “digital for all,” incorporating digital identity, the digital economy and digital governance, says Michala Mackay, director of the Directorate of Science, Technology & Innovation.
“If we can’t identify people, institutions and firms, we will not able to make policy decisions to make adequate provision for them,” says Mackay, explaining how Sierra Leone was a co-founder of the Digital Public Good Alliance.
The country is using the OpenG2P platform, sister to MOSIP at the IIITB, to explore cash transfers. After the country’s experiences in the Ebola outbreak when it struggled to send cash to frontline staff, then further experiences during COVID-19, it is now working to use the platform to transfer money not just to individuals but institutions such as schools.
Sierra Leone is also working with MOSIP to pilot its ID platform.
While on schools, Mackay explains how they are using another tool, UNICEF’s open-source RapidPro, as a sector-based functional ID for pupils who are not registered at school via their NIN (national identification number) and can still take their exams.
Financial and fiscal inclusion, fraud exclusion
Before the National Civil Registry, people had to bring documents such as utility bills when an opening a bank account, says Philip Bangura of the Bank of Sierra Leone. But often for tenants, these bills were in their landlords’ names.
Being able to quickly check people against the register is allowing more people to join the formal banking sector. There is even a six-month grace period where people can open an account then go through the NIN registration process, something much more achievable now the NCRA has decentralized and processes applications at local offices.
The register helps people enter the banking system, possibly accessing microfinance before fuller services. A collateral register allows people to list movable items such as phones and bicycles for loans.
The Bank of Sierra Leone has created sandboxes for fintech to observe new products to understand and regulate them. It is working to automate credit reporting
The National Revenue Authority has also undergone a major overhaul beginning in 2018 and covering all aspects including customs. Individuals had been accumulating tax debt, then simply moving on and starting a new business, explains the authority’s Jeneba Bangura, realizing that the NIN would have to be included to create a human aspect.
The new system with the civil register “makes life easier – not just for us but the taxpayer,” says Bangura.
“The NIN has been a life-saver for us in this sector,” says Daniel Kaitibi of the NaTCA. SIM card registration regulation in 2019/20 would have been a much bigger task, he says. “NIN has helped us clean up the system.”
Mobile operators integrate with the NCRA via an API and are limited to three SIMs each. There has been a “drastic reduction of fraud” says Kaitibi, such as in mobile money transfers.
Novel Nairobi workshops
ID4Africa’s Executive Chair, Dr. Joseph Atick, took the opportunity to introduce the “most novel” meetings and workshops at the AGM in Nairobi, exactly two months away.
The most important could see the birth of an entire initiative: ‘Developing the African eCRVS Shared Asset (ACSA).’ This will address how the continent can develop its own eCRVS, from design, products and governance. It will be chaired by UNICEF and OpenCRVS.
‘Policy and Regulatory Challenges for Digital Identity: The African Perspective,’ chaired by UNHCR and the AIPC as well as the World Bank-chaired ‘Building People-centric, Demand Driven DPI to Transform Public and Private Sector Services’ promise to cover new ground.
The ‘Privacy & Data Protection in Identification Systems’ chaired by the host country’s Office of the Data Protection Commissioner, will be fully independent and not influenced by the identity community, explains Atick.
Registration closes a month ahead of the 23 May event and there is no on-site registration.