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Digital Identity in Africa: Implementation should focus on Usability, Accessibility, and Local Laws

Digital identity is playing a foundational role in our digital economy. The pandemic accelerated trends such as the digitisation of government, and citizens – left with no choice- embraced technology at levels only anticipated for five or ten years in the future. Digital identity is also foundational for inclusive growth in Africa and beyond.

Museveni launching the ID project in 2014. FILE PHOTO

All of the information about your online activities, including your photographs, purchasing preferences, website usage patterns, and bank account information, is included in your digital identity. The way that digital identity is now represented, meanwhile, differs between various platforms, including financial systems, social media sites, and telecom networks. Digital identity features an individual’s best offline and online identities.

The World Bank Group’s Identification for Development (ID4D) initiative estimates that 1 billion people around the world are unable to prove their identity, with over half living in Africa. According to UNICEF, nearly two-thirds of children in Africa under the age of five do not have a birth certificate. Among the 99 countries included in the 2017 ID4D-Findex survey, Africa is home to 9 of the 10 countries with the lowest identity coverage, and 7 of the 10 countries with the widest gaps in coverage between men and women.

The pandemic has both highlighted the problem of not having secure digital identities and accelerated the drive to find workable solutions. With digital transformation, identity is now the foundational element of cybersecurity. Yet around the globe, almost 1 billion people lack a legal form of identity while another 3.4 billion have some form of identity, but no digital trail. Plus, there are multiple competing standards and approaches to digital identity each trying to strike the right balance between privacy and convenience.

This lack of a universally accepted approach to digital identity is a huge impediment to global growth and creates the potential for an even greater divide between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. From tech giants to standards bodies to governments, the race is on to find a solution with the market size for global digital identity solutions projected to grow to $30.5 billion by 2024.

India implemented a national digital ID called the Aadhaar project. In addition to ensuring the reduction of costs and bureaucracy in the country, the digital ID also increased security by replacing physical documents—reducing fraud, inefficiencies and corruption. It became easier for citizens to hire private services, which attracted investment, increased competition, and led to better products and services at lower prices. No doubt, Biometrics have been widely adopted in developing nations like India, where strict laws have been implemented.

Biometrics as a form factor for digital identification provides stronger attribution to an individual due to its unique characteristics and is, therefore, less capable of impersonation, providing the means of capture is well controlled. To be effective, an individual, must be matched with a high level of confidence and without error. This is in part subject to the error thresholds imposed that determine acceptance and may give rise to false positives (where the subject has been incorrectly accepted) or false negatives (where the subject has been incorrectly rejected). An understanding of the trade-offs between these scenarios occurring is therefore important based on the organisation’s risk appetite in the context of what the user needs to do.

Similay, digital identity benefit from using blockchain technology because of its robust security measures. But thus far, just a handful nations have accepted it. Tests of blockchain technologies took place: in Estonia, to aid the development of a ground-breaking transnational e-residency program; in the UK, to see how it can be used to help make efficient welfare payments to citizens. Blockchain-based self-sovereign identity has been explored for decentralised digital ID architecture since 2018.

With an estimated 500 million people in Africa living without any form of legal identification (World Bank, n.d.), digital identities have become increasingly popular because of their relative ease, low cost, and convenience compared to more analogue systems. These implications are, if anything, underlined by COVID-19 and the ways in which the devastating pandemic has tended to increase the utility of digital technologies on the continent and beyond. Just like a pandemic can offer potentially compelling insights into socio-digital inequality, the state, and citizenship in Africa, digital identity ecosystems also proffer an interesting case study of development practices. For instance, Nigeria intends to take digital ID coverage to 85 percent of its population and 97.5 percent of adults by the end of 2027, according to the MIMC. More than 90 million IDs have already been issued in the country.

Digitising citizens’ data, which makes up digital identity, and storing them in centralised databases (as with the case of Nigeria and many other African countries), increases the risk of cybersecurity breaches of digital identity databases. The planned linking of the foundational digital identity number of citizens with all other functional identities such as driver’s license, health insurance, voter’s registration and bank verification number in countries such as Nigeria only increases the value of the foundational digital identity, increasing the risk of cybersecurity breaches. In the event of a cybersecurity breach, data stolen in this context can be used to authenticate transactions, or used in phishing attacks. In more brazen exploits, ransomware attacks can be implemented to hijack data to be released only after the payment of fees.

Technology expert, Grace Mutung’u pointed out that digital ID also constituted a “double-edged sword”. Indeed, it may complicate access to services depending on the socioeconomic dynamics of the country concerned. Digital identification systems in Africa, designed and implemented responsibly, offer long term dividends for financial inclusion, improved governance, the empowerment of women and girls, trade and migration for regional integration, and enable governments to invest in human capital by increasing access to health and education services, and social safety nets for the poor.

About 55% of global internet traffic is mobile in Q1 2021, according to Statista. Mobile devices are now the primary means of accessing the Internet for users. Mobile connections take the lion’s share of web traffic in mobile-first markets like Africa and Asia. “Five years from now, many more of us will be using digital channels to verify our identity on a daily basis”, as indicated in 2021 by Nick Maynard, lead analyst at Juniper Research.

“Expect rapid growth in emerging markets, particularly in Africa, where mobile-first services help citizens access banks, loans, insurance and government services.”

“We foresee over 6.2 billion digital identity apps in service by 2025. This will capitalise upon how important the concept of identity is to our everyday lives,” he added.

However, there are several concerns about the global adoption of digital ID that are starting to surface.

While billions of people reap the benefits of convenience, efficiency and security that digital IDs offer, there are also concerns. Digital IDs may increase the risk of exclusion and inequality among marginalised groups who may be unable to register for one, such as those with lower levels of digital literacy, women and children, and those in remote areas with poor internet coverage or without access to mobile devices. In addition, digital-ID holders may face several privacy risks because of sub-standard data-governance frameworks or because their country’s digital-ID system creates a power imbalance between the state and its people based on the nature of the personal information collected.

Many African countries still lack data-protection legislation and where it does exist, it is often “vaguely drafted, poorly implemented, or allows for significant executive discretion”, according to a Research ICT Africa (RIA) and the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) report. For example, Kenya’s Supreme Court declared the country’s national digital-ID scheme illegal in 2021 due to the absence of clearly defined, legal data-governance frameworks. Arguably, this decision helped other countries “by flagging these issues at the outset”, with several countries now updating their data-governance frameworks to strengthen data protection and privacy and to engender trust in their digital-ID ecosystems.

Implementation challenges can be a problem when digital IDs, and the associated uniquely identifiable data, are scaled across a country. A larger roll out of the program in Malawi was attempted to understand whether the positive fingerprinting findings of the original study would be sustained when the program was scaled. Unfortunately, infrastructure difficulties such as poor data coverage, power outages, challenges in the use of the interface, and low participation in the credit bureaus posed barriers to successful implementation at scale. Another challenge with digital IDs and uniquely identifiable data is that while the process of removing “ghost” beneficiaries (as described above) could help with reducing leakages within service delivery, it could also exacerbate a different problem. Eliminating duplicate data in a database may be at the cost of excluding legitimate beneficiaries: individuals who are eligible but who were unable to pass the biometric authentication test. This often includes vulnerable groups, such as the elderly and manual workers, or those who were not able to link their ID number and biometrics to their service delivery account.

Digital identities are not only shaped by the complex realities (and even more complicated histories) in which they are deployed in Africa, but they shape the everyday realities of most of us who live on the continent. Some are optimistic about these impacts (or rewards), others less so. Some of these concerns (or risks) are grounded in reality, others rarely so. Despite these frequent tensions and contradictions, some forms of digitising identity management ecosystems seem to be inevitable on the continent – whether we like it or not. These factors underline the need for critically assessing the design, development, implementation, financing or funding, and governance of digital identities.

Digital ID is a complex issue that requires wide consultation and learning. Policymakers should not rush digital transformation. They instead should publish their digital ID plans and consider all input from other stakeholders, particularly those most likely to be affected by digital ID. Meanwhile, the technologies chosen for a digital ID platform will therefore depend on factors such as usability, accessibility, and local laws.

Deloitte’s 2019 Future of cyber survey and Rediscovering your Identity; This report examines what business leaders must do to ensure they have a digital identity system in place for their organization, the people it interacts with and its devices that is truly fit for purpose. The system should be designed so that it could, ultimately, be part of a wider ecosystem involving many other organizations, thus allowing the same digital identity to be used across all of them. Experts indicate that:

Business model and strategy.

  • Senior leadership needs to buy in to the importance of digital identity. They should understand that it must be at the center of the organization’s business model and strategy to strengthen the intersection between security and business service lines.

Customer relations.

  • A seamless and secure digital journey in an omni-channel environment should be created to improve relations with customers and citizens, improving on what most other organizations can offer.
    Talent. The right people, with the right knowledge and skills, should be allocated to the appropriate tasks.

Legal and regulatory compliance.

  • A digital identity system should comply with all relevant laws, regulations, industry standards and internal policies, especially those relating to data privacy, data protection and fraud prevention.


  • The implementation of a digital identity system should adhere closely to the agreed plan, with little or no deviation.


  • The processes involved should be seamlessly integrated across the whole organization’s operations and its objectives, in support of an enhanced user experience.

Technology transformation.

  • A modern approach to technology infrastructure should be taken to facilitate the data-driven organization.

Tunde Fafunwa, Lead Advisor for the UNECA Digital Centre for Excellence  in an interview with COVID-19 Africa Watch said, ” Digital identification can reduce the digital divide and improve access. It is a cornerstone of financial inclusion. Digital identification can make it easier for women, minorities, and populations at risk to access financial tools, payment systems, and government benefits.

“A significant challenge to conducting widespread registration for digital IDs is that less than 30% of new births on the continent are recorded with birth certificates. It is difficult for individuals without birth certificates to procure foundational IDs. Nonetheless, it is possible to conduct widespread registration and creation of digital IDs using other kinds of records, such as election records and population databases.

“The rollout of an identification system in today’s environment involves a higher degree of financial regulation, security overviews, data privacy safeguards, internal administration, and political will than it did ten years ago in India, for example. For digital ID systems to be successful in Africa and to realize their potential, there is a clear need to elaborate these systems with strong political leadership and with inputs from a broad range of stakeholders.”

The adoption of digital identity seems almost certain at this point. Its potential benefits are vast and banks, financial institutions and governments are attuned to these opportunities. However, as development moves forward, digital identity initiatives and the organizations driving adoption will have to tread several thin lines. It must be simple and user-friendly while maintaining the highest security standards. It must also provide end-users with control over their personal data without overwhelming complexity – or worse, the opportunity to overshare their information with fraudsters or scammers. Success tomorrow will depend on societal trust in the sector today. This will be the crucial currency over the next decade, weighed against fears of a surveillance society.

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