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What Matters in Investing on Digital ID in Africa?

Over 40% of those lacking IDs live in Africa. Digital identification is that it will facilitate development by promoting regional integration, security, social protection of aid beneficiaries, financial inclusion, reduction of poverty and corruption, healthcare insurance and delivery, and act as a stepping stone to an integrated digital economy. Africa countries should work towards adopting a new policy framework for digital ID current year, examining how digital IDs are currently deployed and used on the continent, and with what consequences, is crucial.

Taking fingerprints for Aadhaar, photo by Kannanshanmugham, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0.

Digital identity (ID) is well and truly established as one of the most significant technology trends on the planet. Indeed, for a growing number of public stakeholders and citizens, it’s already a day-to-day reality. As a result, a revolution in the way that individuals interact with public institutions is underway.
Digital ID promises to transform Africa’s economic and political landscape. It holds the power to unlock more inclusive digital economies, increase access to government services, and elevate political accountability. As African nations move forward with ID programs, however, it is imperative that they adopt standard laws and norms that ensure data protection and regional interoperability.

According to the “Biometrics – Global Market Trajectory & Analytics 2020” report published by US-based research firm Global Industry Analysts, the Africa and Middle East biometrics market is forecast to grow at an annual rate of 21%, with the global biometrics industry set to reach US$82 billion by 2027.

With a population of 1.2 billion, Africa is the continent with the youngest population profile and the highest growth rates. The GSMA (2019m) reports that half the population in sub-Saharan Africa will subscribe to mobile services by 2025, making it the fastest growing region. Equally, connectivity is improving by a strong shift from feature phones to smartphones and the move from 2G to 3G, and in some places to 4G. A McKinsey report (2019) notes that Africa is experiencing the fastest growth rates in internet usage, with a 20% increase each year. This increased and improved connectivity and usage could accelerate the inclusion of individuals and entities to enjoy enhanced socio-economic opportunities, and UNCTAD (2019) is estimating that the digital economy could grow between 4.5-15.5% of GDP.

Policymakers across sub-Saharan Africa are increasingly investing in a particular digital technology with transformative potential – biometric identification (ID) systems. Biometric IDs are a form of identification that uses biometric information of individuals to record, identify, and verify their identity. They use traits such as fingerprints, eye retina and iris scanning, voice recognition, facial patterns, and body movement as biometric measures of verification. Traditional IDs usually use other documents or people to verify information about someone or are prepared at birth. This step of digitizing ID systems is partly to increase the provision of a legal ID, which is often essential for citizens to access basic government services and lead a dignified life. It will also enable broader use of digital payment systems and promote digitization of services more generally.

Research shows that more than 500 million Africans do not have a foundational ID from which they can fully transact business, get benefits from the government, etc. The numerous government-sponsored digital identity programs in Africa, such as Nigeria’s, attempt to solve these problems and provide routes to inclusion in national life for millions of people. The potential for biometrics to prevent fraud, improve data security and provide identification to citizens is clear. Yet, there are several barriers to wider adoption of biometric technologies across the continent. Expert says governments around the world hold that digitizing identities help in better identifying the needs of citizens, the technologies are only as good as enhancing values that already exist in the societies in which they are deployed.

Why ICT Adoption in Governance is Imperative for Africa’s Development?

Trusted identity is a vital component of a well-functioning society. That’s why improving security, slashing ID fraud and identity theft, and creating an infrastructure of trust for new online access are high on every government’s agenda, with a call for greater security features and the necessary legislation to implement them.​ For digital ID to be meaningful for human development, it must – from the word go – be developed as a means of better facilitating government services as opposed to controlling people.

There is an urgent need to research and examine digital IDs in Africa to understand their impact on our increasingly datafied society. Digital identification can, exacerbate exclusion and marginalization, while diminishing privacy and control over data, despite the benefits it may carry, as noted in World Bank findings and lessons from Phase I. Some of the challenges identified by the World Bank resonate with the major concerns listed here, and they include risks of surveillance, discrimination, inequality, distrust between the State and individuals, and legal, political and historic differences among countries.

Digital profiles on social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and especially WhatsApp can enable users to voluntarily self-assert their own identity outside of the state. While almost all Africans depend on these platforms for communication and increasingly commerce, very few know how those data trails will be used by other groups. In 2019 the Centre for Internet and Society developed an Evaluation Framework for Digital Identity to examine digital ID systems worldwide across three types of test: rule of law, rights-based and risk-based. The project is now turning its evaluations to Africa. It has partnered with Research ICT Africa, a think tank devoted to the development of a sustainable information society and digital economy. Together they are working with local partners across ten African companies to apply their evaluation framework to the digital ID systems.

Expert says the challenge is that once the benefits are seen and the impact, some of it also on the negative side, is seen, then there are many more stakeholders that need to be involved. So a rollout of an ID system in today’s environment involves financial regulators, involves security overview, involves internal administration, involves the political decision-making, because identification and counting people and different groups have political implications. It becomes a lot more complicated in today’s environment than it might have in the past. In order to be successful, there’s a very clear need to convene discussions and planning with broad stakeholders.

To unlock the potential of digital ID, governments must work on two fronts – boosting both the supply and demand sides of the equation. On the supply side, this means delivering schemes that are technically and legally enabled for a broad range of applications. From a demand perspective, governments must ensure that schemes are accessible and are linked to the services that people most frequently use. They also need to guarantee a consistently positive user experience and engender a high level of trust.

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