When the pandemic shuttered schools, businesses, and social life around the world, forcing everyone and everything online, I recalled Winston Churchill’s maxim: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”
Digital transformation is my organization’s raison d’être. My colleagues and I at ID4Africa have been working to support Africa’s digital revolution for the past seven years.
We work alongside dozens of African nations on their journeys to develop robust and responsible digital identity ecosystems to support development and humanitarian action. We see the digital transformation of Africa as a critical game changer that will help governments operate more efficiently and effectively and remove significant barriers to inclusive economic growth across the continent.
So when COVID-19 spread around the world and forced all economic and social activity to retreat to online platforms, it would have seemed that our moment had arrived.
Instead, the pandemic presented us with an existential crisis.
Ironically, the digital movement for Africa has been a face-to-face affair.
Previously, our in-person Annual General Meeting was the key networking and organizing event for our continent-wide movement. More than 1,500 government officials, business leaders, and digital transformation evangelists from 49 African countries (and just as many countries outside Africa) gathered each year to network and share their growing experience and expertise regarding best practices, business models, and solutions for the development of national biometric digital identity systems.
This approach reflected realities on the ground; face-to-face contact has traditionally been a prerequisite for trust on the continent, and few of Africa’s digital champions (despite the focus of their work) are digital natives. Online knowledge exchange is rarely a first reflex in geographies that still struggle with connectivity issues and a steady supply of electricity.
But the pandemic left us with few options. With our physical meetings put on hold, we shifted to a new online format with the hopes that our community and infrastructure were ready. We produced long format, highly interactive, community-based webinars, which proved to be more accessible and timely, and remarkably effective at encouraging inclusive and intense dialogue. After 18 LiveCasts, each of which was two-and-a-half-hours long and many of which have been viewed more than 1,000 times, we realized that we had built a powerful digital community. COVID-19 pushed us. And we thrived.
The lesson here isn’t that Africa’s leaders managed connectivity issues and embraced our Zoom platform or watched our YouTube channel. Rather, the lesson is that development isn’t an incremental process. It is the result of disruptions.
The biggest disruption in our lifetimes, COVID-19, caught the African continent in the midst of a digital revolution. The African countries that have already established digital identification systems for their citizens have been able to respond to the pandemic more nimbly. Those slower to start their journey toward digital transformation saw, in real time, the value of digital identity systems demonstrated by their neighbors, and committed to expediting their work.
I asked four champions of Africa’s digital transformation to share the impact from their work on financial inclusion, the delivery of government services, and anti-corruption efforts.
Namibia’s Tulimeke Munyika
Director of the National Population Register, Identification and Production in the Ministry of Home Affairs, Immigration, Safety and Security
“We are working on enabling legislation, as the current law doesn’t permit data sharing with the private sector. This has, to a large extent, kept the very able private sector out of the boardroom. We are also engaged in stakeholder consultations to get input and decide on the initial best way forward."
“Once we have a digital identification system in place, I imagine a world where fraud is reduced if not eradicated altogether just by providing a platform that enables identity authentication on the spot and reliably ... Imagine the undeniable savings to social protection net coffers and the enhancement of the social protection sector integrity ... Imagine, a 700-kilometer trip cut short as an identity confirmation letter isn’t necessary because a fingerprint on a machine reader is enough to verify I am indeed the rightful bearer of an ID document. Imagine, just imagine ... The possibilities will be as welcome to service providers as they will be to service beneficiaries. In the future I see an ID that is so powerful in the hands of the holder that no one will need to be reminded to “take good care of it” — an ID that will open many doors with one swipe, one scan, or click, etc. One multi-purpose card that will replace many others in the purse.”
Ivory Coast’s Diakalidia Konaté
Executive secretary of the National Border Commission, the government body leading the development and management of the country’s border areas; national coordinator of the West Africa Unique Identification for Regional Integration and Inclusion Programme
“Ivory Coast launched its first national digital identification system a few years ago. It didn’t work properly. While eight million people signed up, that was only about one in three Ivorians. Then we switched vendors because of performance issues. This was a significant setback due to vendor lock-in. Reluctantly, we had to start all over again. We have learned a lot from this misfortune and we’ve decided to share our experience with others across the continent to ensure that contracts are now written in such a way to ensure that the data is owned by the government not the vendor … Despite this previous challenge, we are making progress on the new system. We are signing up another 600,000 people per year.
“Already, our new digital identification system, launched in 2020, has revolutionized the delivery of social services. For example, we used our digital identification systems to quickly identify and disperse resources to more than 100,000 households in need of aid during the worst of the pandemic. And we could be sure that these were real people and that all of the funds we allocated went directly to them.”
Nigeria’s Hadiza Ali-Dagabana
European Institute of Public Administration certified data protection officer, general manager of legal, regulatory & compliance services, and commission secretary at Nigeria’sNational Identity Management Commission
“Already, the National Identity Database has enrolled more than 60 million Nigerians and legal residents. We are currently enrolling another 2.5 million individuals and issuing unique ID tokens to successful enrollees monthly. This is an estimated one in four Nigerians. I use the term ‘estimated’ intentionally because knowing our true population is still work in progress. This lack of definite data impacts our nation’s ability to plan and allocate resources appropriately towards infrastructure development, education, health care services, national security and overall national development.
“The impact of digital identity management was quickly evident whereby the harmonization of personnel records in ministries, departments, and agencies across the federal government and in some states significantly reduced the ghost worker syndrome. Likewise, using digital identification as means of identification in our 2021 university qualifying examinations eliminated fake candidates and commercial extermination writers. Evidence is growing that the use of digital identification is improving the state of security in the country by reducing crime.”
Lesotho’s Tumelo Raboletsi
Principal secretary, Ministry of Home Affairs
“Initially, critics worried that digital transformation would cost jobs. But the reverse is true … Lesotho has already provided digital identification for about 85% of its population, many of whom previously had no government identification whatsoever. The lack of documentation was a significant stumbling block for economic development. If someone in Lesotho wanted to take out a loan from a bank, for example, the bank would ask them to travel to their ancestral village to obtain a letter from the village headman verifying the person’s identity and trustworthiness. Some village headmen accommodated such requests quickly. Others were less responsive. Now, all that is needed to open a bank account or apply for a loan is a national biometric identity card — improving the ease of doing business
“Lesotho’s urban young people, who are digital natives, have created a platform based on the national identity card system that allows people to send money to anyone else in the country. Previously, you could only send money to others through your cell provider if you and the recipient shared the same cell service provider. This is just the start. We see the digital identity system as the foundation for innovation.
“The national digital identity system also allowed the government to identify nearly 8,000 fraudulent pension beneficiaries. That reduced the number of pensioners in the country by about 10% and saved the government nearly US$ 4m per year.”