March 20 2021
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Digital identification may be the key to unlocking important and life-enhancing services now and in the future, but many African countries still struggle with transitioning to a fully digital world. According to a World Bank estimate, there are 1 billion people in the world whose identities are not included in an official database. Five hundred and two million of these people live in sub-Saharan Africa.

If you are Nigerian, chances are that you have been pestered by your mobile network operator (MNO), since 2020, with hundreds of messages about linking your SIM card to your National Identity Number (NIN), or else it would be disabled. The deadline for this exercise keeps shifting.

Registration of prepaid SIM cards with biometrics is mandatory in Nigeria to ensure that the government can authenticate citizens’ data right from their MNO. But it seems the government has realised that the data captured in SIM cards are often an unreliable means to track down a person’s identity, especially given that a single person can own multiple SIM cards.

Today, 75 million people—or about 40% of Nigeria’s 200 million-strong population—have been enrolled with the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC).

In today’s edition of Next Wave, I will discuss what African countries must do to achieve full digital identification coverage.

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Know your citizen

Why do governments need so much data on their citizens? For one, corruption thrives in an economy where citizens are digitally anonymous. In 2020, Zimbabwe’s Public Service Commission introduced a biometric system with which it ran an audit and discovered 10,000 ghost workers in the country’s public payroll. Just this year, the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA) discovered 3,000 ghost workers on their payroll, a number that seems to have been acquired in just 2 years.

Digital anonymity of citizenry is expensive for governments.

Zimbabwe lost $4 million to ghost workers the year before the biometric-enabled audit happened; Ghana lost $1.2 million to ghost workers in 2020; Nigeria’s government, in 2016, recovered over $495,000 when its finance ministry fished out 50,000 ghost workers who were on the country’s federal payroll. The losses caused by digital anonymity and identity theft can be curtailed if Africa gets digital identification right.

The World Bank estimates that India’s digital identification scheme, Aadhaar—which has now reached 99% of India’s 1.3 billion population—saves the government $1 billion annually by curbing corruption while providing useful welfare services to citizens.

2019 McKinsey report projects that full digital identification coverage could unlock economic value equivalent to at least 3% and as high as 13% of GDP in 2030. It could add 6% for emerging economies, and, specifically, 7% for Nigeria.

Source: Boluwatife Sanwo, TechCabal Insights.

In an increasingly digital world, registering a citizen via digital identification can help a country provide effective and inclusive financial services. It has the potential to save 110 billion hours of governance time as it will streamline e-government services such as social protection and direct benefit transfers. It could help institutions cut onboarding costs by up to 90%, help ensure the staff one is paying are exactly who they say they are, and help save $1.6 trillion from frauds enabled by digital anonymity.

According to the Mobile Biometrics – Global Market Trajectory & Analytics 2021 report, the global market for mobile biometrics was estimated to be worth $18 billion in 2020 and is expected to reach $79.8 billion by 2027.

Source: Boluwatife Sanwo, TechCabal Insights.

Getting digital identification right


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Trust is important to identification: citizens must be assured that their data is safe with the government.

Last year, a report on privacy and personal data protection, compiled by the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms Coalition, revealed that only 4 out of its 8 surveyed countries—Kenya, Togo, South Africa, and Uganda—have comprehensive privacy and personal data protection acts in place; Namibia, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Ethiopia do not.

As of today, mandatory registration of prepaid SIM cards is the predominant method many African countries deploy to ascertain the identity of their citizens. What this means is that African countries must continue to deepen their mobile penetration coverage for this method of identification to be effective—or else millions of citizens who do not have mobile phones or registered SIMS will be further excluded socially and economically.

Forty-six percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s population is subscribed to mobile services. African governments must work closely with mobile network operators to increase this number and support the enrolment of all people who currently lack formal identification on the continent—which would include reaching underserved demographics like people in the rural areas, women, the disabled, the non-Western educated, and the aged.

Have a great week.


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Sultan Quadri, Staff Writer, TechCabal.

Sultan Quadri Staff Writer, TechCabal

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